A police chief sued the Town of Delavan regarding his suspension for alleged misconduct while in office. A newspaper sought access to the court file. In a unanimous opinion, Abrahamson held that newspapers have a protectible legal interest in opening court documents for public examination. Pleadings and exhibits on file with the circuit court fall within Wis. Stats. §59.14, which reflects a basic tenet of democracy--people have the right to know about the operations of their government, including the judicial branch. There are limited exceptions to this rule, but the police chief did not meet them.
Wisconsin drafted its public records law before email technology existed. This case involved an open records request for personal emails that teachers sent and received on government email and computer systems. Abrahamson held that Wisconsin’s Public Records Law is a powerful tool for keeping track of government, and email generally qualifies as a “record” under that law. However, personal emails that evince no violation of law or policy should not be released to the public simply because they were sent and received on government email and computer systems.