A Wisconsin appeals court has set a dangerous precedent for scrubbing the public’s access to online court records.
Our concern is that this ruling opens the floodgates for local judges to routinely remove information from CCAP, which will limit the public’s access to what is occurring at courthouses throughout the state.
An open records advocate — Bill Lueders, who heads the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council — shares some of our concerns and called the decision unfortunate.
The ruling stems from a case involving a landlord who sued to evict a tenant due to illegal activity by other people, but a Dane County judge tossed out the case with prejudice.
The tenant, Denice Morgan, asked that her name be removed from the online court records because landlords often use the system as a screening tool. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Frank Remington declined to remove Morgan’s name from the record because he didn’t believe he had the authority to do so. However, he said, he would have removed it if he felt he could.
An appeals court later made the ill-advised decision to overrule Remington and to remove the tenant’s name from online records of the case.
“All of this is predicated on the notion that landlords are not smart enough or decent enough to make rational decisions about the information that they see on WCCA,” Lueders told the Associated Press. “The idea that an eviction that is dismissed has to be kept from public view so that a landlord can’t find out about it is troubling. What else can’t we know?”
With this ruling, judges can take more liberties in deciding what facts the public has the right to know. Could all records from small claim courts be removed? What about criminal cases — should the public be shielded from those records?
All facts are friendly, and we certainly don’t need judges concealing information from court proceedings. Wisconsin citizens are smart enough to review information on CCAP and to use that information responsibly.
Ironically, a bill is circulating in the state Capitol that would improve the transparency of CCAP. “The Transparent Justice Act” requires courthouse officials to publicly post basic information about all criminal cases, including whether the case resulted in a conviction, and the penalty, if any. This type of information is often posted on CCAP, but this law would legally require that posting.
Conversely, another law is proposed that would allow for more cases to be expunged, which means the case records are sealed and removed from CCAP.
Records on CCAP should be complete, public and easily accessible. We all deserve transparency in government.
The editorial board consists of General Manager Robert Ireland, Editor Scott Williams and community members Patrick Quinn and Elizabeth Lupo-DiVito.