J.B. Van Hollen defends senator's claim of immunity from lawsuits [The Wisconsin State Journal]
(Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 17--Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said Tuesday that he believes in the open records law, but that doesn't mean legislators can be forced into court to make them comply with the statute.
Van Hollen's state Department of Justice filed a motion in Dane County Circuit Court last week claiming that Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, is immune from lawsuits -- including a pending open records suit -- while she is in office.
But open records advocates said Vukmir and Van Hollen are trying to expand the reach of a state Constitutional provision that protects lawmakers from being hauled into court and rendered unable to fulfill legislative duties.
The state Constitution says lawmakers aren't subject to lawsuits "during the session of the Legislature." The advocates say that means just during a "floor session" when lawmakers are debating and voting.
"It's hard to believe that the legislative intent (of the Constitutional provision) was to say the Legislature should never be subject to civil litigation," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.
"The framers of the Constitution inserted this provision -- common among state constitutions -- to give temporary protection to lawmakers from civil suits while they are doing the people's work," Van Hollen said in a statement. "Whether the framers' decision to provide this unique protection to legislators was a proper balancing of interests is a debatable question. What is not debatable is my responsibility to defend its application when it is invoked."
Van Hollen has fallen under heavy criticism for his department's defense of Vukmir, a fellow Republican.
Vukmir is being sued by a watchdog group that claims she hasn't turned over all public records related to her official actions at a May meeting of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
The Center for Media and Democracy filed the suit June 5 after Vukmir provided just a few documents related to the meeting, where she introduced model legislation that was adopted by the group, said CMD general counsel Brendan Fischer.
It's not plausible that Vukmir has no documents related to the model legislation or other matters discussed at the conference, Fischer said.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, ALEC began claiming that it's documents weren't subject to state records laws because they were stamped with a disclaimer claiming they were exempt and because they were distributed through internet file sharing sites called "drop boxes."
Vukmir has not commented, and she didn't return an email Tuesday. State Department of Justice spokeswoman Dane Brueck wouldn't say whether Van Hollen accepts ALEC's claims.
Open records advocates insist that whether a record is on paper or in some electronic form doesn't make it less open to the public, and that ALEC can't exempt itself from the law.
In July, ALEC asked the Texas Attorney General's Office to exempt its documents from sunshine laws, Fischer said.
Lueders said that Van Hollen has been a staunch defender of open records laws, and he suspects that the attorney general isn't completely comfortable with the extent of Vukmir's immunity claim.
(c)2013 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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