Our Views: Expand rather than restrict Wisconsin's online court records

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A bill that would trim information available in the state's online court records system poses a serious threat to the public's right to know.

Those pushing this measure need a simple reminder: Almost all details on the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website are public records. It took years to craft the Consolidated Courts Automation Programs, which users commonly call CCAP. The popular and free website just makes it easier for the public to view the records.

Still, bipartisan Senate Bill 526 would purge the system of information about criminal cases that don't lead to convictions or those overturned on appeal. Sponsors are Sens. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, Nikiya Harris, D-Milwaukee, and Fred Risser, D-Madison. The bill passed a Senate committee 5-0 last week and is available for a full Senate vote.

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association calls it the most serious attempt during this session to deprive the public of full and accurate information on CCAP. The measure would undercut the site's usefulness. It's on a fast track despite opposition that includes the WNA, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and State Courts Director John Voelker.

“Under this bill, WCCA would go from being a tool for tracking what happens in our state court system into being a registry of known offenders,” Bill Lueders, president of the Freedom of Information Council, said in a joint news release with Brett Healy, president of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy. “Only the names of those found guilty would appear.”

Critics of CCAP argue that people use the website to discriminate against those seeking housing or jobs, even when those named were found innocent. Again, where is evidence of this abuse? Besides, laws already prohibit discrimination. Also, even information about acquittals can prove useful, revealing a litigious businessman, or an overzealous prosecutor. The innocent can use the website to clear their names.

The Freedom of Information Council opposes the notion that the way to deal with a perceived problem regarding use of public information is to make that information harder to obtain.

“We believe the people of Wisconsin can be trusted to make appropriate judgments about cases that are dismissed or lead to not-guilty verdicts,” Lueders said. “They don't need lawmakers stepping in to prevent them from knowing what is happening in the court system they pay for.”

Healy called the bill what it is—a horrible idea and step in the wrong direction. The website has already undergone tweaks. Instead of trying to hide more public information, lawmakers should look for ways to add to it so the information isn't as likely to be misused or misunderstood.

It has long been a principle in Wisconsin that all people are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the workings of government and the official acts of our representatives. Readers should contact their senators and urge them to reject this bill.

“With all of the important issues left for the Legislature to deal with in the closing days of the session, legislators should not waste any more time on SB 526,” Healy said. “Wisconsin needs more transparency, not less.”


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