Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. July 10, 2022.

Editorial: A delicate balancing act

The recent ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on anonymity in a suit against the Madison School District was a tough call. We think the court made the right decision, though an argument exists that the court stopped short of genuine transparency.

The ruling, another 4-3 split by the court, came in regards to a suit filed in Dane County by a group of parents. The suit focuses on the district’s gender identity policies. We’re not going to get into those policies here. That’s not the issue we’re focusing on. What we’re looking at is the specific request by the parents to be anonymous in the suit.

Courts in the United States are, generally speaking, presumed to be open. It’s a core concept for American jurisprudence. The handling of court cases against colonial residents was one of the objections our country’s founders focused on because there was no real effort to ensure those reaching a decision in the cases were actually familiar with the community or its norms.

The openness of the courts extends to those who are filing cases in the vast majority of instances. Trials are open to the public. In theory, anyone can wander into a court and, provided they are not disruptive to proceedings, watch what happens.

The exception, clearly, is the juvenile court system. There is a reasonable judgement involved that juveniles should have a higher standard of privacy than adults. We know few people who have objections to that.

This, though, is a case where the line between juvenile privacy and adult transparency shifts depending on the stance one takes to view it. The parents who sued wanted to do so with anonymity, citing fears of retaliation or harassment against themselves or their children. That remains intact, at least as far as the public goes. The lower court hearing the suit allowed names to remain under seal as far as the public goes.

But the parents sought to use their children as a shield against even revealing their identities to the opposing counsel. That was a step too far for the court, which ordered them to be identified to those directly involved in the case. The state’s high court agreed.

Justice Brian Hagedorn proved the swing vote, joining the court’s more liberal justices in the majority. He also wrote the opinion, which rejected what he called a bid to “reformulate” Wisconsin law.

“While we protect certain vulnerable legal participants, such as children and crime victims, the business of courts is public business, and as such is presumed to remain open and available to the public,” he wrote. “In this case, the circuit court’s decision to withhold the parents’ identities from the public and the District, but not the District’s attorneys, was well within its discretion.”

We think there’s a reasonable argument that those who file lawsuits should be revealed, that public identification is part of the process. That is, after all, the calculus the vast majority of people must consider when they elect to seek a court’s involvement in issues. The likelihood of negative effects for the children of those suing is, however, a real concern. We don’t have a problem with the district court’s order in this case.

But courts must tread very cautiously indeed when they withhold information from the attorneys who are arguing a case, especially when that information is as fundamental as the identities of those suing. A basic check on those involved in litigation is essential for opposing counsel. It can reveal patterns of litigious behavior to bolster an argument against a frivolous suit. It can raise questions of standing — whether those suing have a legal basis for doing so.

Withholding the names of those involved from even the opposing attorneys would have undermined their ability to perform such basic functions. Such an action could easily put the court’s thumb on the scales for one side.

We ripped into the court’s decision last week on open records. They deserved it. But this time that same court acted appropriately, acting in a way that preserves the rights of those in a court action while limiting the restrictions on the public to minimize effects for both the public and the children of those who sued.

This time, the court got it right.

Wisconsin State Journal. July 10, 2022.

Editorial: Madison’s brush with mass shooting a chilling call to action

An auto shop, bus stop and modest apartments line the 6500 block of busy University Avenue in Middleton near Madison’s West Side. A popular food co-op and splash park for children are nearby.

That’s where the mass shooter left his cellphone Monday after killing seven people and injuring more than 45 at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, police say.

It’s a chilling detail that’s hard to shake.

The Highland Park massacre could have been repeated and compounded here.

Police say a 21-year-old who confessed to the murderous spree in the upscale suburb north of Chicago still had a .40-caliber rifle and 60 rounds of ammunition in his car when he arrived in the Madison area Monday afternoon. He came here, driving at least 125 miles, just hours after brutally and senselessly shattering dozens of lives in the heart of the community his family called home.

The shooter — we’re not going to repeat his name here, because he presumably sought notoriety — “seriously contemplated” unleashing further gun violence at a July 4 event in or around Madison, Highland Park police said.

Could it have been the festival in Monona? The celebration in Shorewood Hills? The patriotic band concert at a park in Madison?

Could it have been a family cookout?

We may never know. And in a way, it doesn’t matter — because every neighborhood, theater, office and public setting is a potential target for deranged people bent on death and destruction who can easily acquire weapons of war.

We can be grateful that America’s latest onslaught of gun violence was not unleashed here. We also must extend our deepest sympathies to Highland Park and help our neighbors to the southeast try to recover and heal. For those directly impacted — and who were lucky enough to survive — the horrid memories may never fade far enough away.

Highland Park followed the unspeakable carnage May 24 at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. It followed the racist killings May 14 at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. Seemingly every day mass shootings terrorize some innocent community across the country.

Taking broad steps to prevent further gun violence shouldn’t even be a question. It’s a requirement and dire responsibility.

Congress acted recently in a modest way to improve background checks on gun purchases by teenagers. Our leaders in Washington came together to deter the illegal trafficking of guns, disarm convicted domestic abusers and encourage states to temporarily remove guns from individuals likely to hurt themselves or others.

All that was good. But more progress is imperative.

Much stricter and sensible limits on incredibly powerful guns are needed, given America’s chronic bloodshed. Republicans are finally starting to budge in favor of responsible public safety precautions, rather than clinging to wildly irrational definitions of freedom through military-grade firepower.

Voters must keep the pressure on political candidates in this fall’s elections.

Congress is making our schools more secure and steering additional resources to help people with mental illness. That was part of the bill President Joe Biden signed into law last month.

We appreciate that, but it has to be the start of something much bigger, not an excuse to move on.

Police should continue to train and staff public events to help ensure greater protection. But they can’t be everywhere all the time.

We all must do more to report troubling behavior, whether we see it in person or online. Illinois has a “red flag” law that allows judges to temporarily disarm people with strong evidence of imminent danger. Wisconsin should adopt something similar. But the law only works if people report warning signs.

The shooter had contact with police in recent years — once because of a suicide attempt, the other time for police to temporarily seize knives and swords after a family member reported threats.

Yet the father of the young man charged in the Highland Park shootings subsequently sponsored his son for a gun purchase, authorities say. That’s inexplicable and reckless in hindsight. Just as troubling is the inadequacy of state and federal data to track alarming behavior. The shooter’s history wasn’t shared across agencies, which might have prevented him from amassing a small arsenal of guns, including semiautomatic rifles.

Families can’t be shy about reporting one of their own to help protect their loved ones and their communities.

Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett last week stressed the importance of everyone — especially young people — reporting threats of violence they see on social media.

America’s obsession and obscene use of guns isn’t going away. But it absolutely must be restrained by our elected officials in Washington and the statehouse. Everyone must help. Raise your voice and get involved. Most important: Vote this fall for a sane and safer society.


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