Media win right to challenge sealed Racine court case
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, other news media and open government groups have won the right to challenge a Racine County judge’s decision to seal the entire file of an alderman’s public records case.
A three-judge panel of the District II Court of Appeals this week ordered Racine County Circuit Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz to “determine which specific documents” from the record, “if any,” should remain blocked from public view, including the docket listing pleadings, orders and hearings.
Gasiorkiewicz is supposed to complete his work within 60 days. Within 14 days of his decisions, the circuit court clerk must return the full record, including any new materials related to the remand review, back to the Court of Appeals.
It seems to presume that Gasiorkiewicz will open up some of the records, as the order instructs the clerk to “ensure that the record accurately reflects which specific documents or portions thereof are sealed.”
The appellate court order notes that Gasiorkiewicz had sealed the whole court record before deciding some documents in the underlying action were privileged and some were not.
“It appears to this court that the circuit court’s order sealing the entire record is, at the very least, broader than necessary to protect the interests at stake, given the presumption of openness in public records.”
Once the case returns to the Court of Appeals, the City of Racine, the original plaintiff Sandra Weidner, an alderman there, and the news media will have 30 days to file briefs.
The case began after Weidner filed a public records lawsuit for access to materials — mostly her own city emails — that the city attorney had used in a presentation to other aldermen during a closed session of the executive committee.
She was running for mayor at the time, in the fall of 2017.
But at the first hearing on the case, in January, Gasiorkiewicz met with lawyers in his chambers and then told people in the courtroom they had to leave because he was sealing the case.
It can’t be found on CCAP, the state’s online court records index. A search by case number produces a result that only says the case is sealed.
The Court of Appeals ordered that the challengers — the Journal Sentinel, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association — be added to the case caption as intervenorsappellants, though for now, no one can see the caption.
The City of Racine had opposed allowing the news groups and the council to intervene in the case.
Court of Appeals judges Paul Reilly, Brian Hagedorn and Mark Gundrum issued the decision.