State lawmakers should reject calls to hide online court records in CCAP

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Annual attacks on the state’s online court records system are as sure as blowing snow and bone-chilling cold in a Wisconsin winter.

Lawmakers ought to plow these latest assaults to the curb.

On its face, a gripe by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, seems to be legitimate. He says people who were acquitted or had baseless lawsuits resolved years ago should have their names erased from the free and popular database. That sounds reasonable enough—except that these still are public records.

Other bills would remove money judgments from the database eight years after they are paid and limit public access to information about cases until after allegations have been proven in court.

Tom Sheehan, spokesman for the state courts system, has a legitimate concern about the money judgment proposal. He says paper records must be kept 20 years in most civil cases and even longer for serious crimes. Expunging them earlier from the online database would result in a second set of books.

Even Vos admits he isn’t certain the proposal to limit access on pending cases has been fully thought through.

Virtually all information on the Consolidated Courts Automation Programs, commonly called CCAP, is public record. It took years to plan and create the system. Tweaks have occurred. We have a right to see these records, and the Internet just makes it easy to do so. It has long been this state’s policy that all people are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent the public.

Landlords use CCAP to screen prospective tenants. Employers use it to check job applicants. Attorneys use it for research, and crime victims and suspects use it to check the statuses of cases. If some guy wants to date your daughter, you can see if he has been in court. The database gets almost 8 million visitors each year.

Some argue people use CCAP to illegally discriminate against those seeking housing or jobs, even when the subjects are found not guilty. We’ve seen no evidence that those allegations are true. The website even warns employers against discriminating against applicants unless a conviction is a direct concern to the job in question. If the public is misusing or misunderstanding CCAP, let’s provide more information instead of less.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, is right to be concerned with the proposed limits. He notes that even records involving cases in which defendants were acquitted serve useful purposes. For example, they might reveal a litigious businessman or an overzealous prosecutor. Besides, the innocent can use the website to clear their names in an era when the Internet has much information about lawsuits and charges.

Lueders put it best in this statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “The council believes the people of Wisconsin are, by and large, smart enough and decent enough to make responsible use of court record information. It’s too bad that so many of our elected officials do not agree.”

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