Sunday, October 03, 2010

Editorial: Encourage openness with online court records - GREEN BAY PRESS GAZETTE

Proposed changes to the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access system leave us with serious concerns about thorough record keeping and maintaining the public's right to know.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Monday again will consider a State Bar of Wisconsin petition to make three fundamental changes to WCCA, which allows free public online access to court records from throughout the state.

The Bar is calling for:

•An expansion of state judges' ability to order the expunction of criminal convictions, including the removal of case records from the system.

•A mandate that records of pending criminal cases or those that do not lead to conviction to not appear on the site.

•Provision for a mechanism for the destruction of court records immediately after the mandatory minimum retention periods expire.

Supporters say the changes are necessary in part because potential employers and others can view case records — even those in which an individual was not convicted — and discriminate against the involved person, said Erik Guenther, a Madison attorney who coauthored the petition on behalf of the Bar. The way he and other supporters see it, the proposed changes are a way of extending privacy protections to innocent individuals, whom Guenther says in some cases have less protection than their convicted counterparts.

"When someone has been dragged through the process of arrest, charging, investigation and ultimately prevails," he said, "the state has an obligation to not continue to harm that person by limiting their employment prospects. And it's been demonstrated that a job applicant who has been acquitted of a crime stands in a worse place than one who has no criminal record."

The Supreme Court in February held a hearing on the matter and heard from dozens of people criticizing the system. On Monday, the court again will discuss the petition and possibly act. There's a lot at stake for the public's right to know.

We understand and are sensitive to those who feel the system has harmed them, but we feel these cases are the exception, rather than representative of the common experience. Removing or not placing certain cases on the site is akin to altering the historical record, which concerns this newspaper on a deep and fundamental level.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, describes our state's public court management system as one of the most robust in the country, a fact of which Wisconsin should be proud. Lueders also points out that in today's technological age, such records will be available electronically in some form.

"My honest feeling is that removing this information from WCCA is not going to make it go away," Lueders told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "that once WCCA becomes no longer an authoritative source of information about our state courts, people are going to turn to some provider who is. And this … will be a huge boon to private providers who are going to mine this information and provide it at a charge."

As is, WCCA provides a thorough, accurate and complete record of court activity in this state. It is one of our finest examples of government sunshine and exemplifies the fundamental principles of the public's right to know.

It is not a perfect system, but the benefits of keeping WCCA open and accessible far outweigh the potential drawbacks. We urge the high court to carefully consider this matter and err on the side of openness and the greater public good.

The article is available here.

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