By Dan Shaw
A state Supreme Court hearing anticipated for February will offer the public a chance to weigh in on a proposal to make public information about ongoing investigations into attorney conduct.
At a rules conference Friday, Wisconsin justices unanimously agreed to hold a hearing on the possible changes to court rules. Proposed revisions would allow the public to learn when certain informal grievances are filed against lawyers and also alert people to the start of certain types of Office of Lawyer Regulation investigations.
The possible rule changes would allow the state Supreme Court to decide which investigations and grievances involving attorneys are made public. Once approved for release, the information would be posted to the websites of either the OLR, which investigates allegations of professional misconduct, or the State Bar.
The justices agreed that the proposal raises many concerns, making it hard to arrive at a policy that protects the public from potential harm yet avoids sullying the reputation of lawyers who haven’t yet been made the subject of a formal complaint.
“It’s a dicey proposal,” Justice Ann Walsh Bradley said. “I understand the need for it, but I also understand some of the danger.”
During their discussions Friday, the justices wondered if the OLR or State Bar websites are visited often enough to make them useful in trying to warn the public.
The proposed rules would limit what types of OLR investigations can be revealed before the filing of a formal complaint. A lawyer would have to be suspected of conduct that could cause substantial physical, financial or legal harm, for instance, or be engaged in a pattern of criminal or fraudulent activities, for that information to be made public.
A provision would allow the posting of the information if there is “good cause” to do so, but Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson warned Friday that such language was too broad. She suggested that it be amended to prohibit posting the information publicly unless there is a good cause to believe withholding the information would result in harm to the practice of law or the public interest.
Abrahamson said she is still undecided about how much information should be revealed in such public disclosures. The postings could go so far as to reveal what a person is being investigated for or do nothing more than simply state that an investigation is taking place.
Justice David Prosser said leaving the information vague could lead the public to unfairly assume the worst, however.
“They could think this person is engaged in a pattern of fraudulent and criminal conduct,” he said.
The justices have not yet set a date for the February hearing, but said they would try to do so in the coming weeks.