If only there'd been more time.
Last week I testified before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which is considering a petition from the State Bar to greatly expand the ability of judges to seal and expunge court records.
I argued that Wisconsin citizens are entitled to a maximum amount of information about the actions of their government, including the court system. I said there is no proof, only impassioned allegation, of widespread employment discrimination due to online court records.
Further, I noted that if such discrimination is occurring, especially regarding charges that do not lead to convictions, it is illegal and could be prosecuted as such.
Then my allotted eight minutes were up and I returned to my seat to watch proponents of the change - the vast majority of the three dozen people who turned out to speak - give much lengthier presentations. In all, the court heard more than five hours of testimony in support of the petition and about 15 minutes against it.
That's frustrating because I know proponents of these changes - and a similar proposal now before the Legislature - have never come close to garnering majority support on broad-based committees charged with setting court records policy (I've served on several of these). But they sure can draw a crowd.
Rep. Marlin Schneider was there, venting his spleen about the many, many people whose lives have been ruined by court records. He holds, essentially, that there are no employers in Wisconsin who obey the law and no citizens (besides himself, of course) who are capable of making rational judgments about public information.
As Schneider told the court, "There is no forgiveness or mercy anymore."
I refuse to accept this. I refuse to believe the people of Wisconsin uniformly disregard what they've been taught all of their lives in their homes, schools and churches. That they will seize any chance they get to hurt others, even if doing so is plainly illegal, clearly immoral and makes no sense.
I wish I'd had time to point out that Rep. Schneider's contempt for the public's right to know far surpasses his fidelity to truth. As the Associated Press recently reported, his repeated claims about having "hundreds" of letters from people who purport to be the victims of bias based on dismissed charges are untrue. Schneider was able to produce just 22 such letters - none of which, so far as I know, has been independently investigated.
It's a lot easier to whip up hysteria over an issue when you feel free to just make things up.
Speaker Rick Moeck, who was freed from prison in 2005 after he'd served seven years, last week stood before the court and accused Scott Horne, the former district attorney of La Crosse County, of having "lied" in court on two occasions. I seriously doubt this, just as I doubt Moeck's assertion that he can no longer use the phone because anyone he called would immediately search his online court records.
And talk about irony! Here's a guy who wants to keep attacking an officer of the court while simultaneously seeking to shut off public access to court records that might undercut his claims. I wonder what State Bar member Horne, now a La Crosse County judge, thinks about that.
The State Bar petition would also change the standards for minimal records retention and allow files to be shredded once current rules no longer require them to be maintained. But even this was not enough for some speakers. One sentencing consultant argued that "dismissed cases should be destroyed" as a matter of course.
We already have a mob; let's bring on the torches!
At the end of a full day of listening to these impassioned appeals and unsubstantiated claims, the Supremes held an open discussion about what to do.
While there were lingering concerns about the court's authority and a consensus that more study is needed, the justices seemed to agree that they must act to end the wholesale discrimination that speaker after speaker alleged was occurring.
No one suggested doing anything to check the accuracy of these often wild allegations. Instead, the court seemed inclined to shut off access to whole categories of online records - a step more radical than the State Bar proposed.
As Justice Patrick Crooks put it, "I see nothing wrong with removing from [the system] records of a person found not guilty." Other justices seemed to feel the same about pending cases, or cases in which charges are dismissed.
Once that ball starts rolling, the usefulness and reliability of these online records will be severely compromised. That would be a boon for less accurate and less scrupulous private data providers. Worse, it will represent the court's agreement with the critics' central theme: that the people of Wisconsin are not smart enough or decent enough to be trusted with this information.
I'll probably never have enough time to explain what I think is wrong with that.
Bill Lueders is president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and news editor of Isthmus.