State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, an elected Republican, has sunk to a new low in an effort to protect a party crony. By doing so, Van Hollen is undermining a decades-long Wisconsin tradition of holding politicians accountable for their actions.
Wielding the full authority of the state Department of Justice, Van Hollen came to the defense of Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, in a pending open records lawsuit filed by the Center for Media and Democracy, arguing she cannot be sued while in office. His claim hinges on an outdated and incorrect interpretation of Wisconsin’s Constitution.
The state’s Constitution says Wisconsin legislators “[shall not be] subject to any civil process, during the session of the legislature…” As with any document, it is important to remember the context in which the Constitution was written. When it was drafted — more than 150 years ago — the Legislature was in session much less often than it is now, mainly because traveling across the state was a much more arduous task. This provision was intended to keep legislators from being pulled away from infrequent legislative sessions by litigation. It was most certainly not meant to make legislators immune to any civil or criminal penalties during their entire time in office.
This is precisely this misinterpretation that Van Hollen and Vukmir’s claim rests on — they are essentially arguing that legislators should not be sued during their entire time in office.
Van Hollen’s assertion has a specific implication: If legislators are constitutionally immune to lawsuits, they are effectively exempt from complying with open records requests. The consequences of Van Hollen’s nullification of open records law should stop you in your tracks because as Wisconsinites we would be losing a critical check on our elected officials. This state has a long track record of open government; it would be a shame for that to end for political reasons.
The plot thickens when one considers the records which the CMD is requesting. Vukmir is the national treasurer for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a shifty-at-best conservative lobby that unites legislators across the country to draft model legislation to bring back to their home states. ALEC has been linked to voter ID laws, school voucher programs and union-busting legislation nationwide, and the open records request asks for information regarding her involvement with the organization.
Vukmir’s office is trying to prevent this information from becoming public by all means necessary. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, one of her aides tried to avoid receiving a court summons by squabbling with a process server and physically pushing the papers back at him.
According to ALEC’s website, their group was founded on the idea “that government closest to the people was fundamentally more effective, more just and a better guarantor of freedom than the distant, bloated federal government in Washington, D.C.” In light of such high-minded principles, Vukmir’s attempt to conceal her involvement with ALEC is especially ironic. If she truly believed in a government close to the people, she would allow them to see what is happening behind closed doors at the Capitol.
On the contrary, Vukmir has fought tooth and nail to avoid handing over the records. Obviously, she has a right to defend herself in court, but hopefully Vukmir’s constituents notice her anti-open government stance and take this into account when she comes up for re-election.
Van Hollen’s involvement in the case is problematic on multiple levels. Not only is it likely to skew the outcome of this ongoing open record request lawsuit but, more importantly, it destroys a precedent of government transparency. It is this long term effect that is most unsettling.
When Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Madison, faced a records lawsuit filed from a conservative group in 2011, Van Hollen refused to aid in his defense. This begs the (rhetorical) question: Why would Van Hollen come to Vukmir’s defense, but not Erpenbach’s? Oh, yeah — it is a blatantly partisan move, and one that has become all too expected in the state’s current political climate.
Van Hollen’s defense deserves to be thrown out, and Vukmir should be forced to comply with the open records request. If Vukmir is allowed to conceal this information, Wisconsin’s tradition of open government will be shattered, all for the purpose of politics.