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Jackson County judge’s sealing of records raises concerns

BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wis. (AP) — A Jackson County judge who sealed the identities of defendants in three criminal cases defended the move as an effort to protect the innocent, but open-records advocates blasted the action as a violation of the public’s right to know.

Two of the cases were felony cases from 2008 and the third is a misdemeanor from this year. While names can be sealed in sexual-abuse and similar cases, none of those exemptions applies in these circumstances, the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported.

Judge Thomas Lister told the newspaper he has “the inherent power to protect the rights of innocent people.” He said he sealed the cases at the request of district attorney Gerald Fox.

Fox said he didn’t remember the 2008 cases, but he recalled the misdemeanor charge should never have been filed. He said an assistant prosecutor improperly filed a charge against a woman who was charged with driving off without paying for gas. Fox said he was simply trying to correct an error made by his office.

“This was a mistake that I made that prejudiced her unjustifiably, so sealing that record was the only effective way to ensure that she wasn’t prejudiced by my clerical error,” he said.

The other cases involved two teenage girls who were found with specialized fireworks and were charged with being party to possession of improvised explosives. The cases were eventually dismissed and Fox asked that the girls’ names and cases be sealed.

Lister called the sealings “isolated situations.” He said the state needs to have a way to protect people who are charged and whose record remains in online court records even after the charges are dropped.

“No DA is supposed to charge a case until he or she has sufficient evidence that they can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Lister said. “I can only relate to my cases, and in these specific instances, it was a matter that these people were completely innocent.

“It was very unfortunate that formal criminal charges came down only to realize they were wrongly accused,” he continued. “The DA just didn’t want to make it worse. He wanted to remedy that wrong by not drawing any more public attention to it.”

That explanation didn’t sit well with Robert Dreps, a Madison attorney whose practice emphasizes media law. He said it was “certainly illegal” for the cases to be sealed.

“Wholesale sealing of a case file can rarely if ever be justified, and not in a criminal case where it could be done to curry favor with the high and mighty,” Dreps said. “There is an absolute First Amendment right to public proceedings, and that extends to court filings as well.”

Reserve judge Thomas Barland of Eau Claire said he’s never heard of names being sealed in such matters.

James Babler, a former district attorney and veteran judge in Barron County, said the rule of law is clear regarding public records. He said judges may think they have inherent powers to circumvent certain rules, but there’s no legal way to do it.

He also said the whole point of transparency was to make sure the justice system was working as it’s supposed to. He said judges, attorneys and police have to be held accountable for the sake of integrity.

“How do you know what any of them are doing if you can’t see the records?” Babler asked.

Information from: Leader-Telegram, http://www.leadertelegram.com/

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