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Judge wants to see unedited emails to lawmaker before deciding if it's public record

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Gavel & Stryker, made from Cherry & Ash, sold to Whitney Hoffman. By KeithBurtis (Flickr: Gavel & Stryker) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gavel & Stryker, made from Cherry & Ash, sold to Whitney Hoffman. By KeithBurtis (Flickr: Gavel & Stryker) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

GRANT COUNTY, WI (WTAQ) - A judge in southwest Wisconsin says he wants to see a state lawmaker’s e-mails, before deciding whether unedited copies of certain messages should be made public.

Senate Democrat Jon Erpenbach of Middleton was one of the loudest opponents two years ago against the law which virtually ended most public union bargaining.

The conservative MacIver Institute wanted to find out if public workers were engaging in illegal political activity by sending Erpenbach e-mails during their work hours. Erpenbach provided the e-mails to the Institute – but with all the senders’ names blacked out.

The Institute then filed suit in Grant County. And Monday, Circuit Judge Robert VanDeHey said he wanted to see the unedited e-mails for himself, and then decide whether the MacIver Institute should get them.

Among other things, Erpenbach contended that potential public harassment of the workers who sent him the e-mails outweighed the public’s right to know the government’s business under the Open Records Law.

Erpenbach also argued that the courts had no business second-guessing his blackout decisions, under the separation of powers doctrine. The senator also questioned whether the e-mails are official records.

The Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, which brought the lawsuit for the MacIver institute, said Judge VanDeHey ruled that the e-mails are indeed public records, and that the law applies to legislators like Erpenbach. 

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