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    Practice Tips: 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.

    Jean Bousquet

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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 76, No. 7, July 2003

    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 issue.

    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 the courthouses.

    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 Wisconsin.

    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.

    Endnotes

    1Portage and Walworth counties are not currently using the CCAP system in the Clerk of Circuit Court offices.

    2Wis. Stat. § 19.31.

    3Wis. Const. art I, § 9m.




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