Monday, October 08, 2007

Snarling At Online Court Access

CCAP. It's a foul four-letter word to Wisconsin Rapids Democrat Marlin Schneider. To me and many, many others it spells open government.

CCAP is an an acronym for "Consolidated Court Automation Programs." It's a system that allows the public to gain access to court records via a Wisconsin circuit court Web site.

This invaluable service is now under attack. The threat comes in the form of legislation proposed by Schneider to allow only police, judges, prosecutors and reporters to log on to CCAP. Members of the general public would have to get permission from a district attorney or court clerk, who would have to determine there's a "reasonable need" for disclosure before granting access to the site.

The man known as Snarlin' Marlin says allowing unsupervised public access to criminal records is ruining people's lives. Perhaps a paragraph near the end of an August 2005 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sheds light on why CCAP really rankles Schneider so. It says, "CCAP shows that the lawmaker had a $65,000 judgment against him as the result of an auto accident. 'The jury chose to believe the woman who looked frail,' he said about the jury trial."

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is no fan of Schneider's bill and calls CCAP “a model for the distribution of public information.” In a letter to the chairman of the committee reviewing the legislation, Van Hollen wrote that he believes "the exclusion of the general not appropriate and frustrates the state’s compelling interest in accessible government."

To which Schneider responded, "Big deal. I should care?"

Yes, you should care.

The Democracy Campaign used CCAP to research cases Annette Ziegler handled as a circuit court judge that led to our formal request to the state Judicial Commission for an ethics investigation of Ziegler's financial conflicts of interest. With CCAP, we were able to identify the problem cases in a single day. Without access to CCAP, we would have had to travel to the Washington County courthouse in West Bend and comb through volumes of case files. It would have involved weeks of tedious inspection of court documents, looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. And there's no guarantee we ever would have found all of what we were looking for.

The public deserved to know that Judge Ziegler was engaging in judicial misconduct. CCAP was instrumental in making that happen.

The public deserves – and the interest of open government demands – continued unfettered access to CCAP.


Bruce said...

As a business owner in Dane County, I use CCAP on a daily basis to check the credibility of my vendors and potential customers. While I rarely use it as the sole source with which to formulate an opinion, I have found, almost without exception, that unpaid civil judgments and excessive involvement in litigation are warning signs of the way a person or company conducts itself in business.

It troubles me that the sponsors of this bill are so willing to throw our access to information back to the dark ages. If there are people whose reputations have been harmed by uninformed users of the system republishing erroneous information, my suggestion would be for that small percentage of folks seemingly "harmed" by this open access to secure for themselves some representation and clear their names - on the record, of course.

Rrivetor said...

As a landlord, and having both small children and older folks in my building, I think CCAP is a vital part of my screening process. I feel much more comfortable being able to look my prospective tenants up on CCAP and feel confident that they are 'safe' folks to live in my building. Take this assurance away? I surely hope not.