RACINE — The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently made a decision that could at least partially lift the veil of secrecy regarding an open-records case filed by Racine Alderman Sandy Weidner that was completely sealed to the public.
On Wednesday, Dec. 5, the Court of Appeals ruled that Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz should determine which specific documents involving the case, if any, should remain sealed.
The motion to challenge the case’s seal was brought by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, USA Today Network-Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association.
“The reasoning behind the seal orders and open-records decision remains unknown to the public. Indeed, all pleadings are under seal, and even the docket is unavailable for viewing by order of Judge Gasiorkiewicz,” the motion stated.
The City of Racine opposed the motion. However, the Court of Appeals agreed that news media had the right to challenge the seal.
“Having considered the pleadings, we determine that the intervention is appropriate,” the decision states.
The circuit court previously stated that some of the case documents contained privileged information and others did not. The Court of Appeals decision states that “the circuit court’s order sealing the entire record is, at the very least, broader than necessary to protect the interests at stake, given the presumption of openness in public records.”
Gasiorkiewicz was given 14 days from the date of the decision to return the full record of the case, as well as information pertaining to the remand, to the Court of Appeals.
He has 60 days to “determine which specific documents in the circuit court record should be sealed from public view, if any, and whether the circuit court docket should remain sealed.”
The order also grants the news media the ability to participate in further proceedings relating to the case.
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Open records lawsuit
It began with an open-records lawsuit filed by Weidner. Last year, Scott Letteney, the city’s attorney, held a meeting with City Council members, showing them a collection of emails Weidner and two other aldermen had sent to constituents that he felt violated attorney-client privilege.
Weidner claimed the emails were publicly available information, like ordinances and resolutions. Letteney said he was going to send the emails to the city’s Ethics Board. When Weidner requested a copy of the emails, she was denied.
She filed a lawsuit in December 2017 demanding the records. During the first hearing in the case in February, Gasiorkiewicz made the unusual decision to seal the case from the public, something not routinely done.
After discussing the case with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Associated Press in August, Weidner was found guilty on Sept. 25 of civil contempt of court by Gasiorkiewicz. She was ordered to pay the attorney’s fees accrued by the city in the contempt case.
Weidner’s attorneys filed a challenge to unseal the case, as well as to the contempt of court charge, with the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Enforcement of the fine depends on the outcome of that case.
Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council said the Court of Appeal’s ruling is a “mixed” one.
“The appellate court pretty much instructed him (Gasiorkiewicz) he needed to make some parts of the file public, but the decision as to which parts are still in the hands of the judge, who has thus far has shown extremely poor judgment,” Lueders said.
On Nov. 1, The Journal Times submitted a request for invoices from Meissner, Tierney, Fischer & Nichols SC for services pertaining to Weidner’s contempt of court case. On Nov. 6, the request was denied. Letteney’s office stated the invoices also were under seal, meaning the amount of money the city is spending on the case is not available to the public.
Lueders said he has some hope that the cost associated with the case will be one of the documents disclosed to the public.
“I think it was abusive for them ever to claim that this did not have to be released,” Lueders said. “You can’t spend taxpayer money and not tell them how much you are spending. That is outrageous.”