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Our View: Make no exceptions to access to court records
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State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Racine, and State Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, last week proposed a bill to limit access to certain information on the Consolidated Court Automation Program's (CCAP) Web site, Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (WCCA).

The site contains information about cases filed in the state's circuit courts, including both civil and criminal cases.

The Web site now has no limitations on who can access information on the site, although information about certain types of cases is not available to the public.

Vos and Lassa are seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would require the director of the CCAP to remove a case or charge involving a civil forfeiture or misdemeanor from WCCA within 90 days after being notified that the case or charge has been dismissed, that the defendant has been found not guilty of all the charges in the case, or that the case or charge has been overturned on appeal and dismissed. All felonies falling under the same categories must be removed within 120 days.

This bill shouldn't even see a vote. It is poor public policy and further restricts access to open records.

Essentially, this proposal would create two sets of books, the official ones kept by the courts, which contain information on all cases and their outcomes, and the ones available on the Internet, which would be void of the cases mentioned above.

A public record is a public record. And public records should be fully accessible to everyone, with no exceptions. The disposition of cases, regardless of the outcome, certainly falls within that category.

The motivation to expunge reports on cases that have been dismissed, or overturned, or where defendants were found not guilty is to protect one's reputation by deleting the record.

But users may already have accessed the charging record before it was removed, so what better way to clear one's name than to maintain a record of dismissal or acquittal on a Web site where everyone can see it?

In late 2006, the WCCA Oversight Committee discussed proposals such as the one Vos and Lassa have introduced and rejected them. Vos was the chairman of that committee. On May 10, 2007, he decided not to reconvene the committee because "efforts have been made to achieve consensus on the issues the committee is considering. However, no common ground between parties can be found."

In that letter, Vos said he had intentions for introducing some of the ideas from the committee as separate legislation. He said some of the issues present "difficult public policy choices."

Expunging some records off WCCA is one of those difficult public policy choices. The WCCA site is intended to reflect the actual record of Wisconsin courts, not excerpts of them. Vos and Lassa are making the wrong choice to introduce this bill.