Jan. 09--The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a newspaper is entitled to uncensored billing records that a private law firm submitted to Juneau County's insurance company for work done defending litigation involving a suspended sheriff's deputy.
In a 4-3 decision, the court upheld a Court of Appeals ruling that the invoices fell under the contractors' records provision of the public records law through the unique "tripartite relationship" among the county, its liability insurer and the law firm hired by the insurer to represent the county.
"We're glad the court upheld Wisconsin's tradition of open government," said Christa Westerberg, the Madison attorney who represented the newspaper.
The Juneau County Star-Times sued the county in 2010 after it provided only redacted versions of the invoices. A circuit judge dismissed the complaint, saying the invoices were not covered by the public records law because they were generated by a contract between the law firm and the insurance company.
But the Supreme Court found that the county's contractual relationship with the insurance company underlies the company's relationship with Crivello Carlson, whose partner Michele Ford was representing Juneau County's sheriff only through the insurance policy.
News groups that filed an amicus brief in support of the Star-Times argued that only records specifically required to be produced by a contract between government and a private party should have to be disclosed.
"The court refused to open this damaging loophole," said April Barker, attorney for the amicus groups.
The court did not rule specifically on whether redactions of the billing records endorsed by the trial judge were proper or not. That issue was not raised with the Supreme Court. But the opinion does note that at oral argument, lawyers for the county stated no confidential or privileged attorney-client information was part of the billing invoices.
And so the Supreme Court followed the Court of Appeals order that the full, un-redacted invoices be disclosed.
The county had argued that the Court of Appeals ruling effectively transforms private records into public records. The state Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief also supporting that position.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson wrote the majority opinion, joined by justices N. Patrick Crooks, Ann Bradley and Patience Roggensack.
Justices David Prosser and Annette Ziegler wrote separate dissents. Justice Michael Gableman joined both in dissenting.
The dissenters expressed concerns that the majority analysis could open the door for access to attorney billing records that might comprise work product, confidential or privileged matters.
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