Thursday, July 13, 2006

Supreme Court Rules Against Rongstad

In a decision released this morning, the state Supreme Court affirmed an earlier Circuit Court decision to fine consultant Todd Rongstad $65,000 and said the court properly ruled that he did not have the right to withhold a membership list for the group he headed.

State Sen. Julie Lassa took Rongstad to court over election mailers sent by the Alliance for Working Wisconsin, which was headed by Rongstad. The court's decision, written by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, also lays out a framework for dealing with similar cases in the future, asserting that circuit courts should rule on motions to dismiss before penalizing someone for refusing to unmask anonymous members of an organization.

"When faced with an assertion of constitutional privilege against disclosure of information identifying otherwise-anonymous organization members, the circuit court should decide a pending motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim before sanctioning the party for refusing to disclose that information," Bradley wrote.

One legal observer said, "It's a bad decision for Todd Rongstad but a good decision for anyone else who engages in these activities because it gives them a road map."

Bradley was joined in the majority by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Louis Butler. Justices Jon Wilcox, Patrick Crooks and Pat Roggensack did not participate.

In his dissent, Justice David Prosser called Lassa's suit "an attempt to chill First Amendment rights by bringing a tort suit" and said "compelling Rongstad to disclose the membership information ... substantially chilled First Amendment rights."

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