Campaign contributions, arrest records and recall petition signatures are all available for public view in Wisconsin, but the state’s Board of Bars Examiners is not subject to the same visibility when it comes to supplying information on bar exam applicants.
The state Supreme Court on Wednesday denied Madison attorney Steve Levine’s request that the BBE turn over names and addresses of people who took bar exam. It also denied his request to make the BBE subject to open records laws.
During a public hearing Wednesday afternoon, Levine argued that other state agencies are subject to open records law and the BBE should be no different.
“Every regulatory board in Wisconsin, outside of the judicial branch of government, is subject to open records and meetings law,” Levine said. “Why not the BBE?”
But the BBE advertises the application and exam process as confidential, the justices said, and the court did not want to betray that confidence by ordering the BBE to release participant information.
While BBE meetings are open to the public, agency Director Jacquelynn Rothstein said, state Supreme Court rules allow applicant information to be kept confidential.
“I think it would be unfair to disclose information about people who are operating under the guise that it is confidential,” she said.
Last August, the BBE denied Levine access to the names and addresses of people who took the Wisconsin bar exam in July. Levine, who was researching the bar exam process and looking for any potential changes, petitioned the court to force the BBE to release the names.
“I don’t think anyone has ever surveyed applicants to ask what they thought about the process,” Levine said. “So there are all sorts of good reasons why the information should be made public and none at all why it should remain confidential.”
During Wednesday’s discussion of the matter, Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson questioned Levine about whether applicants have a right to confidentiality until they pass the exam.
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“I may not want my mom to know I failed,” she said, “so I may not want her to know I took the exam.”
Justice David Prosser noted that while Levine’s request for applicant information may be for a worthwhile purpose, there may be others who request the information with less than honorable intentions.
Levine acknowledged that access to the information would undoubtedly lead to some abuse, but he said that shouldn’t overshadow the need for openness.
“Of course there will be some instances where some embarrassing information might get out,” he said. “But in the larger picture, it is essential to have this. The choice should be up to the public, not a government agency.”