Bill changing access to court database opposed
MADISON, Wis. — The latest attempt to restrict public access to a popular online court records database is once again attracting opposition from media groups, landlords, the state court system and even the parents of the bill’s sponsor.
But Rep. Evan Goyke, a Democrat from Milwaukee who is a former public defender in Milwaukee County, said Monday he will not be deterred by the tough road ahead, even though both his father and mother work for opponents of the bill.
“It hasn’t caused any bad blood over the dinner table,” laughed Goyke, a freshman lawmaker. “I’m still going to come home over Thanksgiving and be welcomed.”
The bill affects information on Wisconsin’s court records database popularly known as CCAP.
The site, created in 1999, provides information free to the public about civil and criminal cases filed in Wisconsin circuit courts. It gets between 3 million and 5 million page views a day and frequently is used by attorneys, court officials, bill collectors, landlords and the media but is available to anyone who wants to use it.
That would change under Goyke’s bill.
Goyke said he’s concerned about how innocent people’s lives are harmed by having their charges still listed on the site even after they’ve been cleared. It is illegal for employers or landlords to discriminate against those with past or pending criminal records and the site includes disclaimers about the innocent.
“Just because there’s a disclaimer on one screen on a computer doesn’t mean people don’t form an opinion about that person,” Goyke said. “Human nature is what it is. We’re curious and we’re judgmental people.”
He said one woman who was falsely accused of raping two children 20 years ago planned to testify about how difficult it has been for her to find a job because the charges remain on the database.
Under Goyke’s proposal, the public would no longer be able to see any information about pending cases or cases in which a person was found innocent or there was no civil liability. Cases in which orders or charges are reopened, vacated, set aside or overturned on appeal also would be removed from public view. Orders of evictions and the issuance of restraining orders would also be similarly restricted.
All of those cases would be maintained in a separate database. That would be viewable by judges and court officials, lawyers, journalists, landlords, those involved in the real estate industry including mortgage lenders and bankers, and debt collectors.
A similar bill passed a Democratic-controlled Assembly committee in 2010, but was not debated by the Legislature that year. This year’s proposal, which has only Democratic sponsors, was scheduled for a hearing Thursday before a Republican-controlled Assembly Judiciary Committee.
The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a statewide group primarily consisting of media organizations that is dedicated to open government, plans to testify against it.
Removing some records while keeping others neuters the effectiveness of the database, increases the likelihood that a private company will offer the same information for a fee, and robs the public of the ability to monitor wrongful prosecutions and serial litigators, said Bill Lueders, president of the FOIC Council.
The Wisconsin Rental Housing Legislative Council, represented by Goyke’s father and former state Sen. Gary Goyke, is also opposed to the bill. Goyke’s mother, Nancy Rottier, works as legislative liaison for the state court system, which is also against the bill.
The court system opposes it because of the cost and complications related to maintaining a second database and because the Legislature is dictating to the judicial branch how to maintain its records, said state courts director John Voelker.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who opposed the 2010 version of the bill as a limitation on the public’s access to government records, also objects to it this year, spokeswoman Dana Brueck said.
Goyke was realistic about the bill’s chances, saying he’s open to compromising with critics to find some way to protect innocent people.
“Do I think the bill is going to pass in its current form? No,” Goyke said. “Am I open to changing it? Yes, 110 percent.