Keep Public Information Public to All

By MIKE FORD | Sept. 11, 2013

Several years ago while sitting at my desk I received a curious phone call from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinelreporter working on a story about convicted felons working as lobbyists in Madison.  He wanted to know how my criminal past related to my current work.  I laughed and informed him that I was not in fact a convicted felon.  I asked him how he came up with that idea.

His answer?  The Consolidated Court Automation Programs, better known as CCAP.  Sure enough, if I CCAP myself I find all kinds of Michael Fords involved in all kinds of shenanigans. 

It is a good thing I am married because a new girlfriend looking me up on CCAP would think I have been divorced several times, am a tax cheat, a deadbeat dad, a bail-jumper and a fast, reckless, sometimes drunk driver without car insurance.  Oh, I also apparently speed while boating.

And, of course, there are the felonies: Theft, armed robbery, failure to pay child support, etc.  Someone using CCAP irresponsibly could very easily drag my name through the mud.  But in reality, I imagine most people use this service responsibility, like the reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who was kind enough to call before jumping to any conclusions.

The fact is that court proceedings are a matter of public record and the public has a right to view court records on CCAP.  I am dumbfounded as to how a bill seeking to limit access to these public records, Assembly Bill 253, could be supported by any public official. 

Ok, maybe not dumbfounded.  The support for limiting access to CCAP comes from a compassionate place. Several legislators are worried that constituents with past violations will be discriminated against by potential employers, and that their economic livelihood could forever be threatened by a single past transgression. 

Worse yet, a person may never actually be found guilty of a crime, yet their mere presence in the CCAP system could sway an employer’s judgment. It is plausible.  Say an employer is looking to hire a delivery driver.   Do they hire the applicant with no CCAP record or the one who was pulled over but ultimately acquitted of drunk driving?

The bill proposes moving some court records to a separate database that is only accessible to “judges, court commissioners, and other court or state and local agency employees, law enforcement officers and employees of law enforcement agencies, lawyers, journalists, licensed debt collectors, employees or agents of financial institutions, realtors and certain other people involved in the sale of real estate or in mortgage or other lending, and landlords.”  It would set a terrible precedent by picking and choosing who gets to view what public record.  It would also be an administrative nightmare.  Who defines “journalist” and how?

Transparency is a hallmark of our administrative state.  It can be inconvenient, annoying, and, yes, at times totally unfair.  But it beats the heck out of the alternative.  Creating a tiered system where different members of the public have different access to public records is a step away from good government that Wisconsin should not take.