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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Sunday, June 23, 2024

Give public access to court records

If State Rep. Marlin Schneider's, D-Wisconsin Rapids, top priority is grabbing the spotlight, he certainly has accomplished this. Earlier, the Democrat proposed property tax exemptions for newspapers. Now he has a plan to limit public access to circuit court records online. Like his previous ideas, this is still a well-intended but impractical suggestion.

The Wisconsin Circuit Court system has a popular website. Daily visits go well over half a million. By typing in basic information, anybody can get access to individual court records. The website has been a convenient and reliable source of public records, although landlords and employers have been known to use it in discriminatory cases.

According to Schneider, however, the convenience also facilitates abuse of the online system. Since records of pending cases are available to the public as well, Schneider thinks this would discriminate against individuals who are later not convicted. Under his plan, these pending cases wouldn't be accessible to public. Only professionals such as court officials and authorized media would be able to access the entire website. For any other parties interested, there would be a $10 annual fee and the system would track your browsing history.

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Granted, there are individuals charged for something they have never done. A simple Google search could ruin reputations. But plugging up a public information source simply isn't a feasible solution to the issue.

The public should have free access to all court records, with the exception of cases involving minors. The ""free"" here means not only ""freedom to choose reading records"", but also ""free of undue charge."" The system is provided for free under Wisconsin open records law. An extra fee on this service comes off as a breach of state law by charging for public information. On the other hand, if Schneider really wants to tackle the discrimination issue, the $10 to outsiders wouldn't help. The major users of this site are landlords and business owners. Even if the bill becomes law, they will still pay the amount and continue their routine background checks.

Schneider's proposal would grant privileges to authorized organizations such as accredited media. So these media outlets could pick out any information on any pending cases while most of us can't. Imagine this scenario: what if the media, in turn broadcast the pending cases to all of us? Schneider's anti-discrimination ideal could readily be crushed by a local news story.

While the court website provides convenient access to background checks, it certainly isn't the only source. Users have the option of switching to another search engine. To make it even easier, people can just Google search the name they're looking for. Without an authoritative source, the plethora of information might throw employers and job applicants into further misunderstanding.

For many Wisconsin residents, the CCAP database is more than a handy service. It also enables the public to check on the proceedings of our judiciary system. This is a key part of a transparent government. Shielding information from the public eye could further compromise their confidence in government operations.

Schneider is bent on a great cause, offering solutions to some of the most nerve-wracking issues. But in the case of online court records, he fails to provide a realistic answer to the problem. Under his proposal, the government would be vested with more power to check on the public while conversely we can't do the same to the government. This would be a different kind of discrimination.


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