On December 18, 2015, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of New Richmond News v. City of New Richmond, 2015 WI 106, but the decision does not provide the clarity many in the municipal law world hoped it would. Instead, the Court’s decision, available here, vacates its decision to accept the parties’ petition to bypass and remands the matter for proceedings at the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.
New Richmond involves the interplay between the Wisconsin Public Records Law, which generally provides for the disclosure of municipal records to the public, and the Driver’s Privacy and Protection Act (DPPA), which provides for the protection of personally identifying information in motor vehicle records. The St. Croix County Circuit Court held that the New Richmond News was entitled to unredacted records from the City of New Richmond Police Department. After receiving the circuit court decision, the parties filed a joint petition to bypass the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and move directly to review by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted the petition for review in May. More details regarding the decision to appeal are available here.
Oral arguments were held before a full Wisconsin Supreme Court, however, Justice Patrick Crooks passed away before a decision was rendered in the case. Justice Rebecca Bradley, was appointed to the court after the court’s decision, and did not participate. However, the Justices were evenly split, with Justice Abrahamson, Justice Walsh Bradley and Justice Prosser voting to affirm the circuit court, and Chief Justice Roggensack, Justice Ziegler and Justice Gableman in favor of reversal. As it has in prior cases involving a tie on a matter in the court on bypass or certification, the court determined “justice is better served in such an instance by remanding to the court of appeals for their consideration.” Interestingly, Justice Abrahamson drafted a concurrence (Justice Walsh Bradley joining) suggesting that past practices would have allowed the justices to vote to have the case reargued so Justice Bradley could participate.
Given this matter will now be heard in the court of appeals, and will likely again make its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court thereafter, it may be some time before clear instruction is available regarding the application of the Wisconsin Public Records Law and the DPPA.