MADISON – Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn has ordered the state Department of Justice to release unredacted disciplinary records to The Lakeland Times.
Last year, the DOJ withheld the names of 19 disciplined employees in its response to a public records request from The Times seeking records regarding any DOJ employees disciplined between 2013 and 2016. The department argued the individuals whose names were redacted were lower-level employees who’d committed minor infractions and protecting their reputation and privacy rights outweighed the public interest.
The newspaper sued for the records and, at a hearing earlier this month, The Times’ attorney, April Rockstead Barker of Schott, Bublitz & Engel s.c., argued the state was trying to create a blanket exemption to the public records law. Barker, who also serves as co-vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, asserted that with the names redacted from the records, it would be impossible to determine issues including nepotism and favoritism or ascertain if an employee was disciplined multiple times.
Bailey-Rihn ruled in her decision that many of the DOJ’s reasons for redacting information had already been addressed by higher courts.
“The purpose of the open records law is to allow for transparent and accountable government and public employees,” she stated in the decision. “The reasons for redacting certain information from the 20 records at issue are insufficient as there does not seem to be an ‘exceptional’ circumstance justifying denial of access.”
In addition to ordering the records be provided without redactions of the names of disciplined employees, Bailey-Rihn also directed DOJ to remove substantive redactions from two disciplinary letters in which the names had been provided.