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Wisconsin Courts Sealing Cases

by David M. Reutter

A basic principle of the American court system is that the public has a right to know what happens in the nation’s courtrooms. In Wisconsin, however, that principle has been compromised to protect certain parties in court proceedings, including at least one prison guard.

In 2006, the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (WCCA) advisory committee found that circuit judges have the authority to seal a case or its documents. To do so, the judge must first determine that the reasons for sealing court records out-weigh the public’s right to access those records. “Given the strong state policy favoring openness,” the committee stated, “documents or cases are only rarely sealed.”

Yet one court considered it necessary to seal a case involving a prison guard to protect his reputation and career. The guard and a prisoner were involved in a fight, and both were criminally charged. While the dismissal of the charges against the guard was sealed, the prisoner’s dismissal was not.

The guard’s attorney said the sealing was necessary because prison employees are “vulnerable to specious accusations [by prisoners] under current law.” Yet the Wisconsin State Journal, which reported the disparate treatment of the two cases in October 2008, found nothing specious about the prisoner’s accusations.

Sealing court records often entails more than sealing just one document; it may result in the entire case disappearing from the WCCA. Thus, members of the public will not only never know the case exists, they will not know the reasoning for why the case was sealed. As a result, the public cannot seek judicial review of whether it was proper for the court to seal the case in the first place.

PLN has previously reported on the questionable practice of sealing state and federal court records in Florida, which has since been discontinued. [See: PLN, June 2009, p.24; Oct. 2007, p.13].

Sources: Wisconsin State Journal,

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