"Say Cheese!": Wisconsin Supreme Court Pictures New E-Discovery Rules . . . TWICE.

Courts are becoming increasingly persnickety when parties fail to discuss e-discovery issues early on in the case, even to the point of imposing sanctions.  The latest railway car attached to this train of thought, can be found in The Cheese State.

Back in January, we reported on the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s public hearing and open administrative conference about the Wisconsin Judicial Council’s petition for an order amending the state rules of civil procedure to deal explicitly with the discovery of electronically stored information (ESI). Those meetings closed with the court asking for a new petition that would rely more heavily on language in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, incorporate commentary to the federal rules, and possibly include new substantive provisions, particularly one requiring that parties confer about e-discovery issues early in any proceeding.

The Judicial Council submitted its amended petition in March.

This amended petition responded to the Court’s requests by more closely tracking language in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and incorporating, within the Judicial Council’s own notes, large chunks of commentary supplied by the federal Advisory Committee on Civil Rules. The amended petition also included a new provision granting Wisconsin courts discretion to order that parties confer about various discovery problems, including the discovery of ESI.

The Court considered the Council’s amended petition at an open administrative conference on April 28 (video here) and quickly zeroed in on the Council’s new discovery conference provision. The justices voiced unanimous approval for all other provisions in the amended petition. But several justices, led by Justice Annette Ziegler, argued that the Council had not gone far enough to encourage parties to confer at an appropriately early time about e-discovery issues.

The Court ultimately voted 5-2 to adopt the Council’s amended petition but to change the discovery conference provision to require that parties always confer about the discovery of ESI -- although not about discovery issues generally -- unless excused by the court. The Court was unable to hammer out exact language to adopt during the April 28 conference, finding that it needed more time to get the drafting right. But the Court agreed to have the new rules ready for publication this fall.

The e-discovery debate, however, will not end there. The new rules will not be effective until January 2011, and the Court agreed to hold yet another hearing in the fall to receive public commentary, particularly about the discovery conference provision.  The Court may still make additional changes before those rules apply to proceedings in the Wisconsin courts. 

Other states have and will follow suit, not to mention federal courts.   So while marshalling one's ESI arsenal and assessing its contents may seem like a time-consuming task so early on in the case, it is becoming increasingly clear that this must be done.  E-discovery discussions -- which necessitate an understanding of yours or your client's ESI capabilities and contents -- need to occur early on in the case.  Courts are no longer buying excuses to the contrary.