Wisconsin’s Attorney General says a legislator can’t be sued to force release of public records

AssemblyWide-358x268Spoiler alert: This predicament can’t happen in California, but it’s interesting to consider why.  Wisconsin’s rule that legislators can’t be sued while the legislature is in session is, with some variations, a universal element of all state constitutions, including California’s.  The difference is that the public records access law applicable to the legislature in Wisconsin is enforced by suits directly against the lawmaker(s) withholding the records.  In California, by contrast, the target for court enforcement is the entity actually withholding the record—the Rules Committee of the Assembly or Senate or, possibly, the Joint Rules Committee, which are the gatekeepers and decisionmakers on all requests for records of particular legislators, or committees, or houses, or other legislative branch entities such as the Legislative Analyst.  No individual lawmaker is responsible for withholding documents sought by the public under the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA)—or for releasing them, for that matter.

In August 2011, for example, the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times filed a LORA disclosure action against the California Assembly in Sacramento County Superior Court after the Assembly Rules Committee denied their request for certain detailed records of budget allocations to individual Assembly members’ office operations. After the suit triggered a release of some of the information sought, substantial specifics were still being withheld, and the newspapers persisted in the litigation, obtaining the judge’s decision that for various reasons the records were unlawfully withheld. As another illustration of who calls the shots on release of legislators’ records, in response to an earlier request by the Associated Press and others for all lawmakers’ office calendars, one Senator asked permission to release his own calendar from Gregory Schmidt, executive officer of the Senate Rules Committee, who denied the request.