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View from around the state: Courts paint phony picture to justify fees

— From the Wisconsin State Journal

Even the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., with paintings by Rembrandt and Van Gogh, allows flash photography.

The gallery did a test, flashing a camera light at a painting every 4 seconds more than 1 million times. They found little difference in how the pigments reacted compared to the gallery’s normal and carefully controlled lighting.

Yet here in Wisconsin, county clerks of court still claim that taking pictures of court records risks damage to the original documents.

Needless to say, a traffic accident report is not the Mona Lisa. And criminal complaints aren’t drafted by Leonardo da Vinci.

So banning citizens from snapping images of court records with their cellphone cameras is absurd. Not even famous paintings are granted such protection.

The real issue is money. County clerks of court generally charge $1.25 per page to copy court documents, as required by state law. The excessive fee — more than 12 times higher than what federal courthouses charge — brings in more than $800,000 a year statewide, according to The Associated Press.

The gouging should stop. The Legislature should repeal the state law requiring this exorbitant rate.

Court records belong to the public, after all. Citizens shouldn’t have to pay steep fees for copies of what’s already theirs. Citizens pay taxes to create those paper records, and providing access to them in a convenient way is part of the job of public officials.

USA Today Network-Wisconsin just surveyed the state’s 72 county clerks of court about fees. The newspaper group found 24 of 31 clerks who responded said they ban photography of court records because of preservation or financial concerns.

That’s a needless and unjustified barrier to public information. It also wastes staff time and paper if court officials are copying documents that citizens could have snapped with a camera instead.

No change in state law is needed for local court officials to allow photography of paper and electronic records. Former Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen advised court officials more than a year ago not to charge people who use their own digital devices, such as cameras and scanners, to copy court files.

Local clerks should embrace technology while respecting the public’s right to information about criminal and civil cases that concern them. The public deserves open and inexpensive access to what is happening in local courts.

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