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    Practice Tips: WisconsinEye: A New Eye on Legislative Intent

    Among the multimedia coverage that WisconsinEye provides on Wisconsin public affairs is gavel-to-gavel coverage of all sessions of the state Assembly and Senate. All of its program content is permanently archived, giving researchers a new tool to discern legislative intent.

    Margaret A. Farrow & Daniel R. Suhr

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 11, November 2008

    Practice Tips

    WisconsinEye: A New Eye on Legislative Intent

    Among the multimedia coverage that WisconsinEye provides on Wisconsin public affairs is gavel-to-gavel coverage of all sessions of the state Assembly and Senate. All of its program content is permanently archived, giving researchers a new tool to discern legislative intent.

    by Margaret A. Farrow & Daniel R. Suhr

    Judges, attorneys, and researchers in Wisconsin are often frustrated by the limited range of resources available to discern the legislative intent behind a state statute. There are few extrinsic sources of legislative history, mainly the drafting notes and lists of accepted and rejected amendments. A guide from the Legislative Reference Bureau summarizes the problem:

    “Many of the resources commonly associated with legislative intent research with respect to the United States Congress have no counterpart in the Wisconsin Legislature. There is no verbatim record of floor debates. ... There is no transcript of committee proceedings. Without those resources, documentation of legislative intent must rely on other resources which are not necessarily relevant to intent, are often not useful, and usually must be interpreted in order to be helpful to the researcher at all.”1

    This dearth of sources is particularly problematic because Wisconsin courts traditionally place great weight on extrinsic sources of legislative intent when interpreting an ambiguous passage from a statute,2 though this reliance has receded recently.3 However, the lack of sources may start to change with the advent of WisconsinEye.

    WisconsinEye is a nonprofit corporation that offers multimedia coverage of Wisconsin’s public affairs. Basically, it is the Wisconsin version of C-SPAN. The channel covers oral arguments before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, press conferences by the governor and attorney general, and interviews with important newsmakers. Of most relevence here, it provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of all floor sessions of the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate and records many legislative committee hearings.4

    Margaret A. 
Farrow Daniel R. Suhr

    Margaret A. Farrow is the chair of the WisconsinEye Public Affairs Network Inc. board and former lieutenant governor of Wisconsin. Daniel R. Suhr, Marquette 2008, is an attorney working in Washington, D.C.

    WisconsinEye is required to permanently archive all its programming content at www.wiseye.org. Under the “Program – Video Archives” menu, the user can find links to full coverage of all legislative sessions since May 16, 2007. Under the link to each recording is a brief description of what the house covered during that day’s session. Using a resolution’s history, available on the Legislature’s Web site,5 a researcher can find the dates on which committee hearings were held and votes were taken and then compare those dates to the directory of archived footage on wiseye.org. A video archives search engine is under construction and should be available soon.6

    Although it may be time-consuming to watch for and transcribe relevant quotes from the debate, floor statements by sponsoring legislators can now be used in Wisconsin cases. In federal cases, these floor statements are granted “substantial weight”7 and provide an “authoritative guide”8 for courts.9 Given the insight provided by these discussions, it is worthwhile for scholars researching articles, attorneys writing briefs, and judges drafting opinions to watch and use this source of legislative history.

    In cases in which legislative history is pivotal, WisconsinEye’s online archives could play a crucial role in demonstrating to the court the legislators’ intent.

    Endnotes

    1 Michael J. Keane, “Researching legislative history in Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Briefs from the Legislative Reference Bureau, July 2006, 1, at <http://www.legis.state.wi.us/LRB/pubs/wb/06wb10.pdf>

    2Kenneth R. Dortzbach, Legislative History: The Philosophies of Justices Scalia and Breyer and the Use of Legislative History by the Wisconsin State Courts, 80 Marq. L. Rev. 161, 201-18 (1996).

    3State ex rel. Kalal v. Circuit Ct. for Dane County, 2004 WI 58, ¶¶ 45-52, 271 Wis. 2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110.

    4“WisconsinEye will also cover at least one full hearing of each legislative joint, standing, or statutory committee while striving to give fair representation to all committee meetings.” Legislative Council Informational Memorandum, February 2007, at <http://www.wiseye.org/wisEye_programming/informationalmemo.pdf>.

    5Use the Bill Search function available at www.legis.state.wi.us.

    6Bonnie Shucha, “WisconsinEye Progress Report,” WisBlawg, April 23, 2008, at <http://www.law.wisc.edu/blogs/wisblawg/2008/04/wisconsin_eye_progress_report.html>.

    7FEA v. Algonquin SNG Inc., 426 U.S. 548, 564 (1976).

    8North Haven Bd. of Educ. v. Bell, 456 U.S. 512, 527 (1982).

    9E.g. Public Employees Retirement Sys. of Ohio v. Betts, 492 U.S. 158, 178-80 (1989).




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