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State senator tries to block open records lawsuit (UPDATE)

Associated Press

Sen. Leah Vukmir

Sen. Leah Vukmir

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Republican state senator insists an investigative group cannot sue her to obtain records while the Legislature is in session, a stance the group contends would bar anyone from ever suing a sitting lawmaker.

The Center for Media and Democracy has been pressing Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, to turn over records from an American Legislative Exchange Council conference she attended in Oklahoma in May. Vukmir’s office has released nine pages, according to the center. CMD officials believe she has more documents and filed a lawsuit in June demanding she turn them over.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice, led by Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, filed a motion on Vukmir’s behalf on Wednesday contending she’s immune from the lawsuit.

Assistant Attorney General Dan Lennington argued in the motion that the Wisconsin Constitution prohibits anyone from filing a civil lawsuit against a lawmaker while the Legislature is in session.

“The rationale behind this provision of the Constitution is to prevent Members of the Legislature from being distracted by civil lawsuits and minor criminal violations,” the motion said. “The Constitution places a higher value on Senator Vukmir’s execution of her official duties without distraction or interference from civil lawsuits.”

Recent legislative sessions have run continuously from the day lawmakers are sworn in until the next class of lawmakers is sworn in two years later. The next two-year session has typically begun on that day.

CMD attorney Brendan Fischer said DOJ’s position would preclude anyone from ever suing lawmakers because the Legislature is never out of session.

“This position, if upheld by the court, would reverse decades of history and practice and effectively dismantle Wisconsin’s public records law as it applies to the state legislature,” Fischer said in a statement Friday.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said in an email to The Associated Press that the council is “shocked” at DOJ’s position.

“So far as we can recall, no lawmaker has ever before tried to defeat the state’s open records law by using this ruse,” Lueders wrote.

Vukmir’s office referred questions to DOJ. The agency’s executive assistant, Steven Means, said legislative sessions don’t always run concurrently with lawmakers’ terms but declined to elaborate. He said the agency would respond in court if CMD raises its arguments there.

The MacIver Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, filed a lawsuit last year demanding Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, turn over the names and addresses of people who sent him emails during the 2011 fight over passing Gov. Scott Walker’s contentious collective bargaining law.

Erpenbach refused to hand over the information, saying he wanted to protect the senders from retaliation. A judge ruled in April he didn’t have to release the data. Erpenbach issued a statement Friday saying Van Hollen refused to represent him and told him to comply with the request.

“If you are protecting ALEC,” Erpenbach said, “the Attorney General will jump to represent you, but if you are protecting citizens he apparently cannot be bothered.”

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