What can I do if an authority denies my public records request?
Answer: The Wisconsin Public Records Law provides several courses of action for a requester dissatisfied with an authority’s response, or lack of response, to a public records request. An action for mandamus which asks a court to order the release of requested records is available if an authority denies an entire request or part of a request or delays granting access to a requested record. An authority’s offer to comply with a request that is conditioned on unauthorized costs and terms constitutes a denial.
A requester has three ways to pursue a mandamus action.
- A requester may file an action for mandamus by himself or herself, with or without the assistance of an attorney.
- A requester may submit a written request asking the district attorney of the county where the record is found to pursue enforcement.
- A requester may submit a written request to the Attorney General to file an action for mandamus.
The law does not require a district attorney to commence an enforcement action upon receipt of a written request to do so. A district attorney has broad discretion to decide whether to pursue a mandamus action. Likewise, the Attorney General has broad discretion to decide whether to pursue enforcement. While compliance with the law in general is important, the Attorney General generally exercises his authority to pursue enforcement only in cases presenting novel issues of law that coincide with matters of statewide concern. The public records law takes into account the fact that district attorneys or the Attorney General may not always bring actions for mandamus upon request and provides individuals with the option of commencing their own action.
The enforcement provisions of the public records law may be found at Wis. Stat. § 19.37. For more information on enforcement and the remedies available under the law, please see the Wisconsin Public Records Law Compliance Guide, which is available for free download.