STATE OF WISCONSIN
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
J.B. VAN HOLLEN
Kevin M. St. John
Deputy Attorney General
114 East, State Capitol
P.O. Box 7857
Madison, WI 53707-7857
Date October 15, 2014 OAG-07-14
Mr. Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
5006 Vilas Communication Hall
ReStart821 University Avenue
Madison, WI 53706
BodyStart¶ 1. You have requested guidance on the application of Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9), which requires notice to public officials before an authority permits access to certain records. I am providing this opinion pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 19.39, which permits the Attorney General to give advice as to the applicability of the Wisconsin public records law to “[a]ny person.” I interpret your request as encompassing two questions: (1) whether Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9) requires advance notification and a five-day delay before releasing a record that mentions the name of a person holding state or local public office in any way; and (2) whether the notice and delay requirement of Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9) applies only to records that fall within the categories in Wis. Stat. § 19.356(2)(a). ¶ 2. In my opinion, the answer to both questions is no. A record mentioning the name of a public official does not necessarily “relat[e] to” that public official within the meaning of Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9)(a). Wisconsin Stat. § 19.356(9)(a) is not confined, however, to the types of records enumerated in Wis. Stat. § 19.356(2)(a). ¶ 3. The operative language of Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9)(a) provides: Except as otherwise authorized or required by statute, if an authority decides under s. 19.35 to permit access to a record containing information relating to a record subject who is an officer or employee of the authority holding a local public office or a state public office, the authority shall, before permitting access and within 3 days after making the decision to permit access, serve written notice of that decision on the record subject, either by certified mail or by personally serving the notice on the record subject. The notice shall briefly describe the requested record and include a description of the rights of the record subject under par. (b).
Subsection (b) goes on to provide that, within five days of receipt of the notice sent by the authority, “a record subject may augment the record to be released with written comments and documentation selected by the record subject,” and the authority must release the records “as augmented by the record subject.” Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9)(b).
¶ 4. You first ask whether Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9) applies to any record that mentions a person holding state or local public office. ¶ 5. I begin with the plain language of the statute. State ex rel. Kalal v. Circuit Court for Dane Cnty., 2004 WI 58, ¶ 44, 271 Wis. 2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110. Statutes must be read to have meaning, must be read in context, and their interpretation should not lead to absurd results. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has summarized the general framework for statutory interpretation as follows:
We assume that the legislature’s intent is expressed in the statutory language. . . .
Thus . . . statutory interpretation begins with the language of the statute. If the meaning of the statute is plain, we ordinarily stop the inquiry. Statutory language is given its common, ordinary, and accepted meaning, except that technical or specifically-defined words or phrases are given their technical or special definitional meaning.
Context is important to meaning. So, too, is the structure of the statute in which the operative language appears. Therefore, statutory language is interpreted in the context in which it is used; not in isolation but as part of a whole; in relation to the language of surrounding or closely-related statutes; and reasonably, to avoid absurd or unreasonable results. Statutory language is read where possible to give reasonable effect to every word, in order to avoid surplusage. If this process of analysis yields a plain, clear statutory meaning, then there is no ambiguity, and the statute is applied according to this ascertainment of its meaning.
¶ 6. The general rule is that notice to a record subject is not required. Wisconsin Stat. § 19.356(1) establishes that “no authority is required to notify a record subject prior to providing to a requester access to a record containing information pertaining to that record subject,” except as authorized in Wis. Stat. § 19.356.
¶ 7. Wisconsin Stat. § 19.356 provides two exceptions to the general rule. First, an authority must notify a record subject in three narrow circumstances provided by Wis. Stat. § 19.356(2). Second, Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9) provides that an authority must notify “a record subject who is an officer or employee of the authority holding a local public office or a state public office.” Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9)(a). ¶ 8. Both exceptions use the term “record subject,” a term defined as “an individual about whom personally identifiable information is contained in a record.” Wis. Stat. § 19.32(2g). “Personally identifiable information,” in turn, is defined as “information that can be associated with a particular individual through one or more identifiers or other information or circumstances,” see Wis. Stat. § 19.62(5) (incorporated into the public records law by Wis. Stat. § 19.32(1r)), and includes an individual’s name. ¶ 9. The Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9)(a) exception does not apply, however, to any record merely mentioning the name of a record subject. Instead, it applies only to records “containing information relating to a record subject.” Wis. Stat. § 19.356(9)(a). The mention of a public official’s name, standing alone, does not bring a record within the ambit of the exception. Several provisions in Wis. Stat. § 19.356 compel this result.