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Close court records, open can of worms

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Steve Lovejoy
November 6, 2007

Another attack on Wisconsin’s long commitment to open government and open records was launched recently when the Assembly Committee on Corrections and Courts took up a bill to limit online access to Wisconsin court information.


State Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, is the lead sponsor of legislation that would force regular citizens to hoof it down to the local courthouse whenever they want to check public court records.


Yes, public court records. Currently, they’re available to state citizens online through the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access program, a state Web site that provides brief summaries of court actions from speeding tickets and civil actions to felonies.


These are public documents we’re talking about—and that is apparently lost on Schneider.


Not only would people seeking the records have to fill out a request form with their name, address and relationship to the person whose records they want to view, but then county officials would have to determine whether the request is reasonable or not. Government would be gatekeepers of public court records.


Schneider’s bill tried to sweeten the toxicity of the legislation by allowing judges, lawyers and state newspaper reporters to continue to view the records online.


Thank you, Rep. Schneider, but no thanks.


Newspapers are stand-ins for the public, and we would just as soon not be culled from the herd and given special government-sanctioned privileges. We would bet the day would not be far away when another lawmaker might decide to author legislation to revoke that privilege.


Schneider maintains that the easy-access court records sometimes hurt people’s careers and reputations when record searchers do not check someone’s full name, leading to cases of mistaken identity. Such instances are probably rare, and they don’t stack up well against legitimate citizen uses of the court information.


One Milwaukee doctor and legislator recently told the committee that he tells female patients to use the online court records site to check on men they are dating and on individuals their children are dating.


“It’s been a lifesaver,” said state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman, D-Milwaukee.


State Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen also opposed the legislation, saying it would “exclude the general public from accessing information about court proceedings now available over the Internet absent special permission granted by government agents.”


That, Van Hollen said, would “frustrate the state’s public policy in favor of public access to information.”


Court documents are public record in Wisconsin. Schneider’s attempts to make them more difficult to view—or keep them from being viewed at all—defy the state’s commitment to open government. We hope the next stop for this bill is the shredder.


Steve Lovejoy is editor of the Racine Journal Times, where this article first was published. This “Your Right to Know” column is distributed monthly by the Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government.

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