Vol. 76, No. 7, July
Policy on Access to Court Records
The world of instant electronic information has amplified and
accelerated the debate between advocates of open, public information and
those advocating for an individual's right to privacy. These public
policy issues were made more vivid for the Wisconsin Court System when
the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) began providing
circuit court records on the Internet.
by Jean Bousquet
Since 1999, the Wisconsin
Circuit Court Access (WCCA) Web site, has provided comprehensive,
timely, and cost effective access to electronic records of Wisconsin
circuit courts.1 The Web site is used by law
enforcement personnel, attorneys, employment screeners, financial
institutions, and the general public to view circuit court records. This
court access site has received considerable attention, including having
other Web sites link to it, receiving a national top 10 Web site award,
and experiencing as many as 925,000 information searches daily. WCCA
provides detailed information about circuit court cases, including, in
criminal cases, the defendant's name, the charge(s), and the sentence.
For civil cases, the program displays judgment and judgment party
information. The case search option offers a range of search criteria
such as party name, case number, case type, prosecuting attorney,
issuing agency, case status, citation number, and State Bar of Wisconsin
lawyer identification number.
As the use of WCCA grew exponentially, several controversial issues
emerged. The core issue quickly became the dichotomy between the
Wisconsin Open Records law and the impact on the privacy rights of
individuals in the electronic age. In March 2000 the Director of State
Courts, J. Denis Moran, convened a WCCA Oversight Committee to help
develop a policy that addresses these issues. In April 2003 the "Policy
for Accessing Circuit Court Records Over the Internet" was released.
This policy takes various viewpoints into consideration and is based on
the following laws, policies, and assertions.
Historically, in Wisconsin the public has always had the right to
access court information at each of the individual county circuit court
offices. The people of Wisconsin have supported the long-standing
tradition of openness in government. This tradition has been codified in
chapter 19 of the Wisconsin Statutes by dictating the openness of
government records in Wisconsin.
The declaration of policy found in chapter 19, and referred to as the
open records law, defines this commitment by stating that "all persons
are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs
of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who
represent them."2 The business of the courts
is people. Every case filed involves individual people. For the courts,
information regarding the "affairs of government and the official acts
of those officers and employees who represent them" necessarily
implicates information about the individuals who take part in the cases.
In short, maintaining information regarding individuals who are part of
court cases is a necessary aspect of carrying out the courts' function.
The "Policy for Accessing Circuit Court Records Over the Internet"
acknowledges that the Wisconsin Constitution states, "This state shall
treat crime victims, as defined by law, with fairness, dignity and
respect for their privacy."3
The policy reinforces Wisconsin's open records law, while remaining
as respectful as possible of the privacy of each citizen. But again,
because the business of the courts is to deal with individual people,
the CCAP databases in each county unavoidably contain a great deal of
personally identifying information. Providing information that only
partially identifies the individuals involved in court proceedings would
do more harm than good by promoting misidentifications. With the
exception of statutorily prohibited information, such as juvenile and
guardianship records, court case information in paper and electronic
media is open to the public.
Even though the clearly open nature of court records is defined, the
WCCA Oversight Committee was mindful of the privacy rights of
individuals as set forth in the constitution. The committee recognized
the strong impact that the electronic age is having on privacy and the
mounting pressure for privacy legislation in response. While more
complete resolution of privacy issues is pending, the committee did not
want to jeopardize the real benefits currently offered by WCCA by
strictly interpreting only one of the components of this complex
The access policy therefore strikes a balance between making the
courts accessible and protecting the privacy rights of individuals. The
access policy can be reviewed at wcca.wicourts.gov/index.xsl
. The policy covers topics such as the:
- content of the displayed data;
- availability/access to court data;
- fees for accessing court data;
- process for correcting inaccurate court data; and
- retention period for court data displayed on WCCA.
The Director of State Court's policy is consistent with the white
paper, "Public Access to Court Records: Guidelines for Policy
Development by State Courts," prepared by the National Center for State
Courts and the Justice Management Institutes for the Conference of Chief
Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators. The policy
applies only to the accessibility of information online and does not
affect the public access computers or paper copies of court documents at
Internet access to court records permits broad and convenient access
to the information that has always been available to anyone who takes
the time to go to the record custodian and ask for it.
The fact that the WCCA site receives more than 900,000 hits a day is
a testament that a variety of users rely on court information. The CCAP
case management system, which is used by court staff in each of the
circuit courts, is the vehicle that allows court data to be collected
and maintained in a uniform fashion. Since records are maintained in a
uniform fashion, access to these records can be accomplished in a
uniform and efficient manner. To the extent possible, the "Policy for
Accessing Circuit Court Records Over the Internet" supports both
openness in government to access records and the personal privacy rights
for the individuals who are involved in circuit court cases throughout
Jean Bousquet is the
Chief Information Officer of the Wisconsin Court System. For questions
regarding the policy, please contact her at (608) 267-3728 or gov jean.bousquet wicourts wicourts jean.bousquet gov.
Walworth counties are not currently using the CCAP system in the Clerk
of Circuit Court offices.
2Wis. Stat. §
3Wis. Const. art
I, § 9m.