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Justices debate proposal to keep victims’ names private (UPDATE)

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson expressed reservations Tuesday about the latest version of a proposed rule to prevent victims’ names from appearing in appeals court briefs.

At a hearing in Madison, Abrahamson said she would rather go back to the rule’s original version, which would have required lawyers to obtain court orders if they wanted victims’ names to appear in appellate documents. The new version would let the names be put in if a lawyer could cite good cause for inclusion.

Abrahamson argued the changes would give defendants too much leeway to have victims’ identities made public, possibly for vindictive or threatening purposes. She said she would back the general rule but would write a concurring opinion expressing her misgivings. The justices did not vote on the proposal Tuesday but expressed support.

The rule, first presented to the court in January 2014, is meant to prevent victims’ names from appearing in documents that are easily viewable on the Internet. To that end, the prohibition would not extend to circuit-court briefs and opinions, which are seldom posted online.

The rule, started by a petition filed by the Wisconsin Judicial Council, is meant to keep information from a criminal case from coming back to haunt victims long after court proceedings have ended. Advocates have said that details of sexual assaults can be particularly harmful if they are made easily accessible to the public.

The proposed rule is one in a series of measures that state officials and lawmakers have said are needed to protect privacy in the age of the Internet. Legislators have also put forward bills that would expunge case information from an online database after charges had been dropped or a suspect found not guilty. Although the idea has drawn strong support, legislators have yet to agree on the details.

At the hearing Tuesday, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley noted that the current version of the victims privacy rule will still let courts prevent names from appearing in briefs, even when a lawyer has cited good cause for inclusion. A court, she said, can be petitioned for a protective order that would keep the information private.

Julie Rich, court commissioner, said Bradley was the only justice to not support the proposed rule when it was put to a preliminary vote at a Dec. 5 hearing. She said that, at that same meeting, bench members had decided to modify the rule to allow lawyers to cite good cause as reason to include victims’ names in appellate documents.

If the proposed rule receives the court’s final approval, it will take effect July 1. It only applies to new appellate briefs, though, meaning that victims’ information will not have to be removed from documents now posted on the Internet.

Tony Gibart, public policy director at the nonprofit group End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, said the advent of the Internet has given rise to a need for additional measures to protect victims.

“The potential to infringe on victims’ privacy has increased dramatically,” he said. “It used to be you would have to go to a law library to get access to these documents.”


About Dan Shaw, dshaw@wislawjournal.com

Dan Shaw is the managing editor at the Wisconsin Law Journal. He can be reached at dshaw@wislawjournal.com or at 414-225-1807.

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