Open Records Request

Wisconsin’s Open Records Law is contained in Stats Section (ss.) 19.31 to 19.39, ss. 19.31, Stats, provides the following:

Summary of Wisconsin's Open Records Law
19.31 Declaration of Policy
In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them. Further, providing persons with such information is declared to be an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees whose responsibility it is to provide such information. To that end, ss. 19.32 to 19.37 shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.

Section 19.35, Stats, essentially codifies case law and generally requires that a record held by an authority remain open for inspection and copying. Broadly speaking, an "authority" is a state body, local body, or elected official having custody of a record. Further, an authority usually delegates to a named individual the responsibilities of acting as a legal custodian who will respond to requests for access to records. (see ss. 19.32 (1) and 19.33, Stats)

Wisconsin Supreme Court
In discussing the applicability of, and the exceptions to, a predecessor of s. 19.35, Stats., the Wisconsin Supreme Court has stated the following:

"We have concluded, however, where statutes, common law or court decisions have not limited the public’s right to examine records, "presumptively public records and documents must be open for inspection." … "Public policy, and hence the public interest, favors the right of inspection of documents and public records." There exists the legislative presumption that "where a public record is involved, the denial of inspection is contrary to the public policy and the public interest." Thus, the general presumption of our law is that public records shall be open to the public unless there is a clear statutory exception, unless there exists a limitation under the common law, or unless there is an overriding public interest in keeping the public record confidential. (See Hathaway v. Joint School District No. 1, 116 Wisconsin 2d 388, 342 N.W.2d 682, 686-687 (1984); citations omitted)

Summary of Law
The Wisconsin’s Open Records Law provides that a record must remain open for inspection and copying unless:
  • There is a clear statutory exception to this requirement
  • There exists a limitation on inspection and copying under the common law
  • On a case-by-case basis, a record custodian decides that the harm done to the public by disclosure of a record outweighs the public’s interest in access to the record
An authority receiving a record request must either fill the request or notify the requester of the authority’s determination to deny the request in whole or in part, including specific reasons for the denial. Every written denial of a request by an authority must inform the requester that if the request for the record was made in writing, then the determination to deny the request is subject to review by mandamus or upon application to the Attorney General or a District Attorney. (See section 19.35 (4) (a) and (b), Stats.)

Section 19.37 (1), Stats, provides that if an authority withholds a record, or part of a record, a requester may:
  • Bring an action for mandamus asking a court to order release of the record
  • In writing, request the district attorney of the county where the record is found, or request the Attorney General, to bring an action for mandamus asking a court to order release of the record to the requester