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Justices considering how records law applies to courts (UPDATE)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court is reviewing how the state’s open records law applies to the court system, sparking concern among government transparency advocates that justices may close off legal documents to the public.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Director of State Courts Randy Koshnick responded to a records request this month from conservative talk show host Mark Belling with an email saying the court intends to decide whether the state court system is subject to the open records law. Belling filed a request June 12 seeking justices, judges and court commissioner’s official email addresses.

“The Wisconsin Supreme Court intends to decide whether the state court system is subject to the open records law,” Koshnick wrote, adding that the justices are currently considering the question.

The same day Belling got a similar response from Koshnick to a follow-up request to speak to Chief Justice Patience Roggensack. Belling called the email “alarming” and said the idea of exempting the court system from the open records law outside of a case undermines the notion of shared governance.

The Freedom of Information Council sent a letter to the court last week seeking more information about the review and requesting a hearing before any decision is made.

“The state court system represents more than $100 million in taxpayer spending per fiscal year and decides critically important matters related to criminal and civil justice,” the council wrote. “The applicability of the open records law to the system is of significant public interest, and any decision on this issue will benefit from input by informed and interested parties.”

FOIC President Bill Lueders told the Journal Sentinel that as of Monday the council hadn’t received a response.

“I think the court’s refusal to answer questions about this matter is deeply troubling,” Lueders said. “I am unaware of any situation in which having to comply with the open records law has interfered with judicial function. Why fix what isn’t broke?”

State Supreme Court spokesman Tom Sheehan told the Journal Sentinel later Monday after the newspaper published its report that the justices were weighing whether judges and justices’ email addresses should be released.

Releasing those addresses risks opening the door for litigants to communicate with judges overseeing their cases outside the presence of an opposing attorney, Sheehan said. That could result in the judge’s disqualification from the case and disrupt the court system, he said.

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