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Wisconsin high court deadlocks on blacked-out police reports

A Wisconsin Supreme Court left deadlocked by the death of Justice Patrick Crooks in September delayed a decision in a closely watched case about whether police must censor personal information on accident or crime reports.

Crooks died days after the court heard arguments in the case. The justices who heard the case deadlocked 3-3 on whether to affirm a lower court judge’s ruling in favor of open records, so the Supreme Court vacated its decision to accept the case directly and sent it back to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

Last year a St. Croix County judge ruled in favor of the New Richmond News. The newspaper sued the City of New Richmond alleging police were redacting — or blacking out — too much information, a violation of Wisconsin’s open records law.

Judge Howard Cameron found that censoring agencies were misconstruing a federal law.

An increasing number of Wisconsin agencies are redacting personal information on reports after a federal appeals court ruling in an Illinois case. But Cameron ruled the 1994 Driver’s Privacy Protection Act does not require that information to be redacted.

The agencies’ stances have upset open government advocates and made it more difficult for reporters to add details in news stories and for crime and accident victims to submit insurance claims.

According to the opinion, three members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court _ Chief Justice Patience Roggensack and Justices Michael Gableman and Annette Ziegler _ would have reversed the trial court ruling, siding with those who argue that Congress intended the act to pre-empt the state’s open records laws.

Three others — Justices Shirley Abrahamson, Ann Bradley and David Prosser — would have affirmed the decision that the traditionally open records remain open. Justice Rebecca Bradley, who was appointed to the court on Oct. 9 by Gov. Scott Walker to replace Crooks, did not take part in the case.