Your right to know: Abrahamson let the sunshine in

Christa Westerberg

By CHRISTA WESTERBERG

As Justice Shirley Abrahamson ends her tenure on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, after 43 years and more than 1,300 authored opinions, she leaves a rich legacy of legal scholarship, importantly including her support for government transparency.

While on the court, Abrahamson faithfully applied the presumption in favor of public access in the open records and meetings laws. She authored or joined dozens of opinions affirming the law’s stated policy that “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts” of government officers and employees.

For example, she wrote the majority opinion in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel v. City of Milwaukee, a 2012 ruling that barred records custodians from charging requesters for the cost to redact (black out) records. Not only were such charges prohibited by statute, Abrahamson said, but “increasing the costs of public records requests for a requester may inhibit access to public records and, in some instances, render the records inaccessible.”

Abrahamson’s opinions also recognized Wisconsin’s strong tradition of open government. In a 2010 case, she quipped, “If Wisconsin were not known as the Dairy State, it could be known, and rightfully so, as the Sunshine State.”

Abrahamsonfrequently dissented from opinions that limited access. She was a strong critic of two opinions in the late 1990s that permitted individuals identified in records to seek to block disclosure. She wrote: “I dissent because the majority and concurring opinions rewrite the open records law, do away with the legislatively created ‘presumption of complete public access’ to public records and severely damage the core function of the open records law.”

The Legislature narrowed the court-created loophole a few years later.

Abrahamson also advocated for transparency within the Supreme Court itself. In 2012, she opposed its 4–3 decision to close someof the court’s rules and operations conferences to the public. In 2017, she was in the 5–2 minority that closed all such conferences.

In addition, Abrahamson can take some credit for the existence of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the statewide group on which I serve.

In 1977, a joint committee of the media and the State Bar was created to study openness in legal venues. The committee invited Abrahamson, then a newly appointed member of the state Supreme Court, as its inaugural speaker. Council founding member Dave Zweifel recalls her advising that if openness in Wisconsin was to be protected and improved, the press needed to become better organized and more proactive.

Soon after, Wisconsin news organizations began meetings that led to the council’s creation in October 1978. Its first major accomplishment was to work with the state Supreme Court to make Wisconsin one of the first states to allow cameras in the courtroom.

Says Zweifel, “I credit Shirley for being the catalyst [of] what became a new era for open government in Wisconsin and remains highly effective to this very day.”

Fittingly, Abrahamson spoke at the Council’s 30th anniversary event in 2009. She concluded her remarks with a quotation from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

As Abrahamson concludes her time on the bench, she might be known, and rightfully so, as the Sunshine Justice.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (wisfoic.org), a group dedicated to open government. Christa Westerberg, an attorney at Pines Bach law firm in Madison, is the group’s co-vice president.

Comments are closed.

  • Letter to the editor: Thank you, N-O-W School District

    July 1st, 2020
    by

    As my last day as the Superintendent of the Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton School District has passed,I wanted to take a few moments to say “Thank You” to the Norwalk-Ontario-Wilton School District.


    Editorial cartoon

    June 24th, 2020
    by

    Letter to the editor: We must take care of people who struggle

    June 24th, 2020
    by

    You wrote an excellent Back Talk regarding the militaristic interventions at the George Floyd protests and the Depression-era veterans’ protest over non-receipt of their bonus checks.


    Letter to the editor: Do black lives really matter to Black Lives Matter?

    June 24th, 2020
    by

    I am sorry; I just don’t get it.


    Letter to the editor: Trump’s narcissism, lies and gullible evangelicals

    June 24th, 2020
    by

    President Donald Trump’s grossly inflated opinion of himself was never more apparent than at his June 20 rally in Tulsa, Okla.


  • Editorial cartoon

    June 18th, 2020
    by

    Your right to know: Keeping an eye on government from home

    June 18th, 2020
    by

    In March, as Wisconsin enacted Safer at Home, state and local governments scrambled to build new ways to govern from remote locations while still complying with our open meeting laws.


    Letter to the editor: Wisconsin law enforcement officer training, policies, and state laws

    June 18th, 2020
    by

    The Badger State Sheriffs’ Association represents 72 Wisconsin sheriffs, and the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association represents 425 police chiefs in the state of Wisconsin.


    Letter to the editor: R.I.P. — G.O.P.

    June 18th, 2020
    by

    The Republican Party began in Ripon, Wis., on March 20, 1854. It primarily opposed slavery.


    Editorial cartoon

    June 3rd, 2020
    by

    Letter to the editor: America has to face inequality, inequity

    June 2nd, 2020
    by

    I’m staying in Madison for the night, and Mom just called to check in on me: she heard about the riots and wanted to make sure I was okay.


  • Archives