October: Keep court records system open

2009 Columns

For the last decade, Wisconsin has been providing comprehensive online access to the workings of the state’s court system.

Wisconsin Circuit Court Access, or WCCA, has generated billions of hits, saved countless hours of staff time for clerks of courts, and eased access to what is unquestionably public information.

But now a serious legislative effort is being made to destroy WCCA’s usefulness.

AB-340, introduced by state Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wis. Rapids), would purge most of the site’s records, except for criminal cases that lead to conviction or civil cases that establish liability. And it would require most users to register and pay an annual fee to see the records that remain.

In the past, Schneider and others have urged similar changes. These have been debated by several oversight committees made up of prosecutors, defense attorneys, courts workers, lawmakers, privacy advocates, and the media.

These committees have rejected these changes by broad margins. So now Schneider is trying to gut the system though legislative fiat.

It’s a bad idea.

Neutering WCCA (commonly and incorrectly called CCAP) would be a boon for private providers who charge for access to more complete databases, where existing controls about accuracy cannot be enforced.

There would be mass confusion over gray-area cases. If a person is charged with 18 felonies and convicted of just one (like state Sen. Brian Burke), will the system be forbidden to show the true story? If a civil lawsuit is dismissed after one party agrees to pay the other a large sum, has liability been established or not?

The changes would also protect people who repeatedly file frivolous lawsuits, since any case that gets dismissed would not appear. It would let prosecutors who file erroneous or excessive charges maintain 100% conviction records.

Schneider and others assert that public access to WCCA has had disastrous results. They say the site’s prominent disclaimers stating that accused and acquitted individuals are presumed innocent, or that it is against the law to discriminate in employment based on crimes not substantially related to a given job, are routinely ignored.

In short, AB-340’s backers hold that the people of Wisconsin cannot be trusted with public information. Given the chance, they’ll use information to hurt others, in violation of the law and common sense. And thus the only solution is to make information harder to obtain.

That’s a cynical and false characterization. I believe most employers and landlords in Wisconsin not only obey the law but show reason and proportion in the decisions they make. So do most ordinary citizens.

But despite opposition from the media, the state Attorney General’s Office and business groups including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the Legislature is taking this bill seriously.

At a hearing on Oct. 1, a parade of witnesses claimed there is no doubt people are being denied jobs because their names are on WCCA, even when they ’ve been found not guilty. My retort: If these claims are solid enough to shape public policy, they are solid enough to merit prosecution for wanton violation of state employment laws.

At the very least, the Legislature should fund a study into the claims of abuse, instead of just accepting them on faith, as Schneider does. And it should make employers and landlords who use databases to screen applicants disclose this, and provide opportunities for explanations.

The people of Wisconsin are better than AB-340 assumes them to be. Most of us have taken to heart what we’ve been taught all our lives, by parents, schools and churches – to treat our fellow citizens fairly and with compassion.

Even if they did once do something wrong, or were accused of it.

Your Right to Know is distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org ), a statewide group that seeks to protect public access to meetings and records. Bill Lueders is the group’s president.