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Council takes up records request, no other proposed changes to Act 235 expected

The Judicial Council discussed on Friday the best way to respond to a request for records related to a recent overhaul of Wisconsin’s rules of civil procedure.

The request from the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council seeks all records related to 2017 Act 235, including emails between council members and drafts. That act, adopted last year, made a slew of changes to the state’s civil-litigation rules, including its rules of civil procedure. The open-records request came last month from the Wisconsin Civil Justice Council, an organization of businesses and professional groups that bills itself as working to promote fairness in the state’s civil justice system and that was one of the biggest supporters of Act 235.

When lawmakers last year were debating the legislation that eventually became Act 235, members of the Judicial Council had asked last year for more time to study it. On Friday, the members said Wisconsin’s open-records law compels them to answer the justice council’s request but debated how to best go about responding, what records they should provide and how long anyone should take fulfilling the request.

“We’re not staffed,” said Tom Shriner, a council  member. “We don’t have a budget. We don’t have a place to keep records. We should respond to the extent that we can and provide what we have, but I don’t know what else we can say. We’re in this situation because we’re entirely — at least for those of us who don’t have public jobs that put us on the council – volunteers.”

Eugene Gasiorkiewicz, another member,  said many of the council’s meetings have been recorded and that those recordings should be provided to the Wisconsin Civic Justice Council. He also said that if Judicial Council members are going to be expected to provide emails from their individual accounts, they need to be told of that obligation soon.

“This takes high priority,” Gasiorkiewicz said. “We can’t just let this sit. How logistically are we going to do this?”

Duane Harlow, the attorney general’s designee to the Judicial Council, said he would consult his colleagues at the Office of Open Government, a department of the Wisconsin Department of Justice that deals with open records law, and relay their response to Bill Gleisner, a council member who could then tell other members what they needed to do and when.

In other business, the council took steps to correct an error appearing in a letter the council sent to the leaders of the Senate and Assembly recommending that lawmakers adopt a proposal that modifies Act 235.

The proposal calls for eliminating three words from a provision in the state’s rules of civil procedure, words that were inserted when Act 235 was enacted. The council at its last meeting had voted to send the proposal to lawmakers for consideration.

But members received a letter on Thursday from state Rep. Jim Ott, also a member of the council, saying the letter to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate President Roger Roth appeared to mistakenly identify him as having asked the council to review Act 235. The council voted Friday to have Shriner correct that.

Shriner and John Orton, both members of the Judicial Council’s evidence and civil procedure subcommittee, said the committee is moving on from its study of Act 235.

“Other than the recommendation that we’ve made to the Legislature … we don’t think anything else needs to be done to Act 235, and from a practical viewpoint, we’re done with it,” said Shriner.

“We just need to let some time go by and see how these changes might play out,” Orton said.

About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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