A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the state’s health department may release data on companies with multiple COVID-19 cases, closing the loop on a nearly two-year public record case pitting the law. to the privacy of companies to the public’s right to information.
In a 4-3 decision – with Conservative judge Brian Hagedorn siding with the court’s three liberal judges, Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky – the court ruled against Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest trading organization. . WMC filed a lawsuit in October 2020 after Governor Tony Evers and the State Department of Health Services announced plans that summer to release information about positive COVID-19 cases at companies in order to meet requests for records. media audiences.
“The question is whether the public records law’s general ban on pre-release judicial review of decisions to provide access to public records prevents WMC’s claims,” Dallet wrote for the majority. “We conclude that it does, and then we affirm the decision of the court of appeal.”
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Conservative judges Annette Ziegler, Patience Roggensack and Rebecca Bradley disagreed, with Ziegler writing that the state “is ready to release people’s personal medical information to the public” and stating that the majority “make no mention of the possibly unintended consequences. of his action “.
“It closes the courtroom doors to anyone wishing to challenge the release of personal medical information,” Ziegler wrote. “This is a glaring mistake.”
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the decision reaffirms the public’s right to know pandemic-related information collected by a public health authority. He also dismissed Ziegler’s comments, noting that “all that is released are company names and the number of confirmed infections collected as part of the state’s response to a public health crisis.”
“Trying to scare people into believing their most personal medical information is now open to everyone seems irresponsible,” Lueders said in a statement.
WMC, together with the Muskego Area Chamber of Commerce and the Visitors’ Office and the New Berlin Chamber of Commerce, filed a lawsuit with the Waukesha County District Court to block the release of documents after DHS announced plans to release the names of more than 1,000 companies with more than 25 employees where at least two workers tested positive for COVID-19.
Wisconsin companies said releasing the information to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media that requested the information, including the Wisconsin State Journal, would severely impact companies already struggling with the pandemic.
The business groups have also stated that the information they wish to block comes from diagnostic test results and contact tracer records, and that such information constitutes patient health records that must be kept confidential under federal law.
A Waukesha County judge issued multiple restraining orders in 2020 preventing the state health department from disclosing the information. The District Fourth Court of Appeals eventually overturned the lower court’s decision last April, urging WMC’s appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Kurt Bauer, president and CEO of WMC, said in a statement that the organization disagrees with the court’s decision, “which has opened the door to massive public intrusion into private medical records owned by state agencies.”
“The governor’s attempt to shame and embarrass Wisconsin businesses is wrong, and the Supreme Court is equally wrong to admit it,” Bauer said.
DHS spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt said Tuesday that the required documents would not be made available until they were ordered to be released by the district court. The state Supreme Court referred the case to the lower courts.
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