WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. (AP) — Many court clerks in Wisconsin are charging citizens for court records — even though a 2014 attorney general’s opinion says people are allowed to use their own cellphones to photograph court records for free.
USA Today Network-Wisconsin surveyed Wisconsin’s 72 county clerks of court. Of the 31 who responded, 24 said they do not allow people to take photographs of court records.
Making copies of court records generally costs $1.25 per page in Wisconsin. That fee is more than 12 times higher than what is charged for records in the federal courts, which charge just 10 cents per page.
Open-government advocates are critical of not allowing people to take their own photos of court documents.
“We believe citizens should have the right to use their own technology to obtain records from the circuit courts,” Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders said. “Why can’t you snap a picture of it? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Adams County clerk of court Kathleen Dye is among the 24 clerks who said they don’t let citizens photograph court records. Dye contends that allowing photography could damage the original court document.
Making copies in-house also ensures records are accurately and completely reproduced, Dye said. “If I’m copying it, I know what I’m copying,” she said.
Dye said allowing photographs also may reduce how much money is generated by copy fees, which is an important source of revenue.
Barron County clerk Sharon Millermon said she also is concerned about losing revenue, but has opted to allow photography of court records, mainly because she doesn’t have the resources to prevent it.
In Wood County, most court records are scanned and available for free viewing on a computer. People can pay for copies at $1.25 per page, but they also can take photographs of the screen at no charge, clerk of court Cindy Joosten said.
Joosten said technology would make it difficult for staff to monitor everyone who views documents on the computer.
Circuit courts in Wisconsin are moving their records to an electronic format, with many counties already scanning documents and making them available for inspection on computers.
On Thursday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court approved a rule change that will require documents be filed electronically over the next several years. That system will allow people involved in lawsuits to submit documents to the court and access them online without having to visit the courthouse.
But not much will change for citizens seeking court records. The e-filing system does not include an online portal for public access to the documents, and the $1.25 per-page fee will remain for copies. The copy charge is required by state law, which does not distinguish between paper and electronic formats, according to Carlo Esqueda, president of the Wisconsin Clerks of Circuit Court Association and the clerk of court in Dane County.