Wisconsin Assembly panel passes bill limiting court record accessMADISON — Over objections from the media and freedom of information advocates, a legislative committee passed a bill today that would limit the public’s access to online court information.
By: By Scott Bauer/Associated Press, Superior Telegram
MADISON — Over objections from the media and freedom of information advocates, a legislative committee passed a bill today that would limit the public’s access to online court information.
Democrats and Republicans predicted that the bill would face a tough time getting the approval of the full Assembly.
“It’s going to be a hard sell,” said Rep. Fred Kessler, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly Committee on State Affairs and Homeland Security, who opted to send it onward after a 3-3 vote.
Kessler, a former judge, said the bill isn’t designed to limit access, its goal is to prevent harm to innocent people named in the court records.
Even the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Marlin Schneider, D-Wisconsin Rapids, said he wasn’t certain if there was support among Democrats, and because of the tie vote he did not think the proposal would be fast-tracked for debate.
Time is running out. Lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Assembly are only scheduled to be in session five more weeks this year.
Assembly Republicans won’t support the measure, said Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc. A former television reporter, he voted against it.
“Any time you start limiting the public’s access to government, it should throw up a red flag,” Kleefisch said afterward.
Republican support may be needed given that Democrats hold a slim 51-47 majority and one Democrat, Rep. Spencer Black of Madison, voted against the bill in committee. The third no vote came from Rep. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown.
Joining Kessler in support were Reps. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison and Leon Young, D-Milwaukee.
The bill would establish a two-tiered system for access to court records.
Judges, law enforcement officials, attorneys, journalists, landlords, real estate brokers and bill collectors would be able to view the entire Consolidated Court Automation Programs database, commonly known as CCAP. It contains information about civil and criminal cases filed in Wisconsin circuit courts.
But the public would no longer be able to see any information about pending cases or cases in which a person was found innocent or there was no civil liability. Cases in which orders or charges are reopened, vacated, set aside or overturned on appeal also would be removed from public view.
Opponents, including the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, argue the proposal was an insult to the people of the state because it assumed the general public can’t be trusted to view all the records.
They also argued that removing some records while keeping others neuters the effectiveness of the database, increases the likelihood that a private company will offer the same information for a fee, and presents the public with a skewed court history.
The focus should be on making it easier to have records expunged, said Peter Fox, executive director of the newspaper association. A proposal backed by the State Bar of Wisconsin to make it easier for court records to be expunged will be considered by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Feb. 24.
Several people spoke at last week’s hearing about how their lives were affected by having information about their court cases accessed by employers and others through the online court records.
Schneider, the bill’s sponsor, has long argued that the negative effects of putting information about innocent people on the online database has been underreported. Changes to CCAP will be made after enough of those stories are heard, he said.
“Ultimately my position will prevail,” Schneider said.