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Supreme Court Protects Schimel, Shuts Out Public

Jan. 3, 2017
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Last week’s decision by the conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court is a terrible one for the average Wisconsinite. The right-wing justices overturned two lower court decisions and decided that two training tapes of then-Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel (now the Republican state attorney general) should not be released to the public, as requested by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The five justices agreed that there was nothing terribly incriminating on the tapes, but they somehow found a way to justify their support of Schimel in this case and shield him from public scrutiny. They didn’t even seriously consider allowing the tapes to be redacted in part so that sensitive information—whatever it is that the five conservatives justices don’t want the public to see—would be kept private while the public could view the bulk of the information. 

Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote the decision, which was joined by Michael Gableman, Daniel Kelly, Patience Roggensack and Annette Ziegler, who is up for re-election this spring. 

Instead of following the state’s open records law, they relied in part on the federal Freedom of Information Act, which is more limited than Wisconsin law.

Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley dissented, with Abrahamson writing: “Today, the majority opinion significantly dims the lights on transparency in government and shuts off some lights by concluding that the Department of Justice may withhold both of the videos in their entirety.”

Abrahamson is right. The public has a right to view these tapes. Schimel was a public employee when he created them so the taxpayers own the tapes and they should be available to the public when requested. It doesn’t matter who requested the tapes—the court, according to state law, isn’t allowed to consider the reasons why records are sought, or by whom—yet the majority did factor that into their decision. The state’s highest court, and the state’s top prosecutor, should be standing up for the public’s right to know what their government officials are doing in their official capacity. With this decision the right-wing justices once again affirmed that they are more interested in partisanship and power than serving the public. 

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