A state Supreme Court ruling on open records Tuesday is being hailed as an important victory for journalists. The 4-3 decision makes it clear that even records of attorney fees paid by local governments to defend lawsuits are subject to the state's sunshine laws.
The ruling involves an open records request from the Juneau County Star Times for financial records from insurance company attorneys who defended the county in a lawsuit brought by a deputy sheriff who was challenging his suspension for alleged misconduct. The county released the records but redacted information claimed as privileged because the attorneys worked for the insurance company not the county. But the high court ruled the entire records must be released. Journalist Bill Lueders is the president of the state Freedom of Information Council, "I think most municipalities in the state of Wisconsin do have an insurance company and that insurance company does hire lawyers either in house lawyers or outside lawyers and this establishes that the records generated from those relationships is public information."
A dissenting opinion from Justice David Prosser says the ruling threatens attorney client privilege and could lead to costly changes in legal billing practices. But Lueders disagrees, "Lawyers do not put secrets in their billing statements. It is not attorney client privilege for a law firm to say that they spent an hour talking to so and so. There is nothing secret or privileged in that type of information. "
A statement released by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association calls the ruling an affirmation of the commitment of Wisconsin's courts to transparency open records and open government.