Are Wisconsin Court Records Public?
In accordance with the letter of the Wisconsin Open Records Law, citizens can inspect or obtain copies of records maintained by government authorities. The Wisconsin government hopes the accountability provided by the open record law will enable citizens and the general public to examine the conduct of the affairs of government as contained in documents and records kept by government officials.
Wisconsin defines a record as any material on which written, drawn, printed, spoken, visual, or electromagnetic information or electronically generated or stored data is recorded or preserved, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which has been created or is being kept by an authority. Wisconsin court records are considered public records in line with the provisions in the open record statutes.
Records are presumed to be open to inspection or copying except where exemptions have been made. Where an exemption applies, the disclosure provisions of the public record statute become inoperative. Certain records may be exempt due to state or federal laws, law enforcement and investigation information, juvenile status, or where disclosure amounts to an invasion of privacy. Requirements of the public records law apply to records that exist at the time a public record request is made. Wisconsin's public record law does not require authorities to create new records in order to fulfill public records requests.
Enacted in 1982, the Wisconsin Open Records Law does not require requesters to state the purpose of their requests. However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has found that the purpose of a request for a public record can be relevant in the balancing test. Balancing tests usually weigh the public interest to be served by disclosure of records against the private or public interest jeopardized by the disclosure of the records being sought. Where the interest threatened by disclosure outweighs the public right to know, access is typically denied.
How Do I Find Court Records in Wisconsin?
The first step to take when trying to obtain court records in Wisconsin is to identify the court where the record is kept. The Clerks of Court are the court record custodians in Wisconsin. Many of these custodians keep records in paper and electronic formats. Upon identifying the courthouse where the record in question is filed, the next step in obtaining a court record is to make a public record request to the Clerk of Court.
Members of the public can access electronic versions of case records in Wisconsin through the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (WCCA) and the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Case Access (WSCCA). The WCCA provides the public with access to case records of the Circuit Courts who are part of the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) Case Management System. The WCCA only provides public access to certain public records of the Wisconsin Circuit Courts. Confidential records such as adoptions, juvenile delinquency, child protection, termination of parental rights, guardianship, and civil commitments are not available on the WCCA.
The WCCA allows a user to find court case information by providing the name of a party to the case, business name, or the case number. Search results can be limited to specific counties or the entire state.
The information displayed in the case summaries found on the WCCA portal include:
- Names of parties to the case
- A description of the case type
- The court official assigned to the case
- An indication of whether the case is still pending or has been completed
In criminal cases, the WCCA portal displays any notes or explanatory comments entered by the Clerk of Court. Note that explanatory notes on WCCA may not be construed as official transcripts or complete descriptions of documents, hearings, court orders, or other events. Documents filed in court cases are not displayed on the portal. Electronically or scanned documents filed with the Clerk of Court may be accessed in person at the courthouse.
The WCCA portal displays case file information for the entire period the file is retained by the Clerk of Court. Generally, civil cases and misdemeanor criminal cases are retained for 20 years. Felony criminal cases are retained for 50 years, except Class A felony cases which are retained for 75 years. The exceptions to this rule are for small claims cases that are dismissed with no money judgment entered against any party and criminal cases where all charges in the case are dismissed or result in an acquittal. These types of cases are kept on the WCCA portal for two years. The following types of cases are also displayed for two years after entry of the final orders in those cases:
- Traffic forfeiture and Forfeiture (non-traffic ordinance violation) cases on which the charge has a disposition of dismissed or acquitted
- Injunctions under Wis. Stat. Chapter 813 for domestic abuse, child abuse, individual at risk, and harassment, which results in a dismissal or a denial
WSCCA provides public access to the status of appeals filed with the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Note that WSCCA only provides public access to cases that were categorized “open” from the end of 1993 forward.
WSCCA allows users to search for a court record by the following options:
- Appeal Number
- Circuit Court Case Number
- Party Name
- Business Name
- Attorney Name
Court records can also be accessed in person at the various courthouses in Wisconsin. For cases that are stored electronically, requesters can view the contents of the file at public access terminals located inside the Offices of the Clerks of Court. Even though a case is no longer displayed on the WCCA portal, the case file can still be viewed in person at the office of the Clerk of Clerk.
Obtaining actual court documents or certified copies of court documents attracts a nominal fee. Pursuant to WI Statute 814.61(10), copies of court records cost $1.25 per page. Certified copies are charged at $5 per document in accordance with WI Statute 814.61(5). Triple seal or exemplified copies cost $15, and $1.25 per page for the attached documents. Pursuant to WI Statute 19.35(3)(f), a prepayment fee is required if the total cost exceeds $5.
Considered open to citizens of the United States, public records are available through both traditional, government sources, and through third-party websites and organizations. In many cases, third-party websites make the search easier as they are not limited geographically or by technological limitations. They are considered a good place to start when looking for a specific record or multiple records. In order to gain access to these records, interested parties must typically provide:
- The name of the person listed in the record. Juveniles are typically exempt from this search method.
- The last known or assumed location of the person listed in the record. This includes cities, counties, and states.
While third-party sites offer such services, they are not government-sponsored entities, and record availability may vary on these sites when compared to government sources.
How Do Wisconsin Courts Work?
Currently, there are four types of courts in Wisconsin: Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit Courts, and Municipal Courts. Trials are held in the Circuit Courts, while the intermediate appellate court is the Court of Appeal. An individual or entity may bring a civil or criminal case before the Circuit Court. After proceedings, the Circuit Court will rule in favor of one party. The losing party may appeal to the Court of Appeal to review the decision of the lower court or bypass the intermediate appellate court by filing a Petition to Bypass. A petition to bypass asks the Supreme Court to handle the case directly without it going through the Court of Appeals. It requires a minimum of at least four justices to take a case on Petition by Bypass.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court may also, on its own, decide to review a matter appealed to the intermediate appellate court. This is known as "Direct Review" in the Wisconsin court system. It requires a vote of at least four justices to take a case on Direct Review. The losing party in a Court of Appeal case may ask the Supreme Court to hear the case through a Petition for Review.
What Are Civil Court and Small Claims in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin Small Claims Courts are divisions of Civil Courts that hear small claims lawsuits involving property or money worth more than $10,000, it is considered a large claim. If the amount in controversy is below $10,000, it is considered a small claim. Small claims court is a special type of civil court that resolves disputes more quickly and inexpensively when compared to other court proceedings. Rules are more relaxed, and plaintiffs may appear in court without attorneys. Wisconsin limits third-party complaints, personal injury claims, and actions based in tort to claims of $5,000 or less. Typical small claims cases include:
- Eviction due to foreclosure
- Return of earnest money for the purchase of real property, irrespective of the amount
- Actions on an arbitration award for the purchase of real property, regardless of the amount
- Evictions regardless of the amount of rent claimed
- Repossessions of properties when it is a non-consumer credit action where the value of the property is not more than $10,000
- Repossessions of properties when it is a consumer credit transaction where the financed amount is $25,000 or less.
- Property damage or personal injury when the amount in controversy is $5,000 or less
- Claims for money where the amount claimed does not exceed $10,000 if the actions are for money judgments only or the garnishment of wages
A small claims court cannot award the winner of the case more than $10,000 plus costs even if the claim exceeds $10,000. Wisconsin permits any individual or corporation doing business in the state to sue or be sued in small claims court.
What Are Appeals and Court Limits?
An appeal is a process through which the judgment or decision of a subordinate court is challenged before a higher court. Trial courts are subordinate to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Therefore, a party who feels aggrieved by the decision of the Circuit Court may file a petition with the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court where possible. The appellate court simply reviews case records from the trial court to ensure that no errors were made before, during, or after the trial. Note that cases cannot be appealed for no good reason. There must be a legal basis for an appeal, such as an alleged error in the trial proceedings.
Any individual or entity who wishes to file an appeal in a civil case must do so within 45 days from the entry of final judgment if written notice of the entry of the final judgment or final order was received within 21 days. Where no written notice has been received, the petitioner has up to 90 days to file an appeal. The Notice of Appeal must be filed in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, and copies sent to the Clerk of the Court of Appeals and other parties to the case. The Notice of Appeal informs the Circuit Court that the petitioner is going to appeal the Circuit Court's decision and contains information about the case. These time limits for civil appeals apply to civil, small claims, family, probate, paternity, adoption, guardianship, non-criminal traffic, forfeiture, municipal ordinance violation case, and Wis. Stat. § 974.06 appeals.
To initiate an appeal in a criminal case, a petitioner must first file a Notice of Intent to Pursue Post-conviction or Post-disposition Relief. Petitioners have up to 20 days after the date of sentencing or final judgment to file this notice. Secondly, the petitioner must request a copy of the Circuit Court transcript(s) and a copy of the Circuit Court case record. This must be done within 30 days after filing the Notice of Intent to Pursue Post-conviction or Post-disposition Relief if no representation request has been made to the state public defender on appeal. If the state public defender has denied representation, the petitioner has 90 days to request a copy of the Circuit Court transcript(s) and case record.
Upon receiving the transcript from the Circuit Court, the petitioner must file a Notice of Appeal or a Motion for Post-conviction or Post-disposition Relief with the Circuit Court and serve a copy on the prosecutor and other concerned parties within 60 days after the receipt of the transcript or the Circuit Court case record. After the ruling of the Circuit Court on the Motion for Post-conviction or Post-disposition Relief, the petitioner has 20 days to file a Notice of Appeal in the Circuit Court. This Notice must be served on the prosecutor, the Clerk of the Court of Appeals, and any other party to the case. Note that all requests to extend any deadlines in the appellate timelines for criminal appeal must be directed to the Court of Appeals, and not the Circuit Court, even if the deadline precedes the filing of a Notice of Appeal. Criminal appeals procedures apply to felonies, mental commitments, misdemeanors, protective placements, and juvenile cases.
In Wisconsin, termination of parental rights (TPR) cases are moved through the appeal process in an expedited manner compared to other cases. Firstly, a Notice of Intent to Pursue Post-disposition or Appellate Relief must be filed with the Circuit Court clerk within 30 days after the entry of final judgment. A copy of this Notice must also be served on the person representing the interests of the public, opposing counsel, the guardian ad litem, the child’s parent, and any guardian and appointed custodian. The petitioner must request a copy of the Circuit Court transcripts and case record within 15 days after filing the Notice or 30 days if a representation request has been denied by the state public defender. Subsequently, a Notice of Appeal must be filed with the Clerk of the Court of Appeals within 30 days. Copies of the Notice of Appeals must also be served on the person representing the interests of the public, opposing counsel, the guardian ad litem, the child’s parent, and any guardian and appointed custodian.
Persons who wish to appeal a non-final judgment or order must file a petition and supporting memorandum asking the Court of Appeals for permission to appeal. The petition and memorandum must be filed within 14 days after the entry of the nonfinal order or judgment. By statute, both documents combined must not exceed 8,000 words or 35 pages. Any opposing party in Circuit Court must file a response with supporting memorandum, if any, within 14 days after the service of the petition.
What Are Wisconsin Judgment Records?
Wisconsin judgment records are documents describing a court’s decision on a lawsuit. Generally, a judgment describes the rights and obligations of litigants, the remedies for infringing those rights, or failing to meet legal obligations. In criminal cases, a judgment is the court’s determination of an individuals’ conviction or acquittal of criminal charges, as well as the applicable penalties.
Judgments only become binding when the clerk of courts enters the record in the court docket. This action also makes the record available for public access per the Wisconsin Open Records Law. Persons who wish to obtain judgment records must visit the clerk’s office during business hours and submit an official request. The court administrative staff will require case identifying information and payment for associated court fees before processing the request. Cash, money order, certified check, and credit cards are acceptable ways to pay court fees.
The information contained in judgment records depends on the case type. Nevertheless, a typical judgment record in Wisconsin contains the litigants’ names, the judge’s name, a case description, and the court’s decision. The document will also see the remedies awarded and the penalties imposed on concerned parties.
What are Wisconsin Bankruptcy Records?
Wisconsin Bankruptcy Records comprise accounting data on individual and corporate entities who have filed bankruptcy court proceedings. Records are typically domiciled at the Eastern and Western District Courts. Interested parties can access information on bankruptcy cases and hearings in Wisconsin via several options. One way is to use the Public Access to Court Records (PACER) system. This web-based format enables anybody with internet access and a PACER login to access official records through the internet. Another option of obtaining information is through the Voice Information System (VCIS) (VCIS). VCIS enables anyone with a touch-tone telephone to dial into the court's database and obtain free access to regular case information at all times. Other alternatives to getting information in the Wisconsin District Courts are through the archived case information and receiving electronic bankruptcy notices from the Courts.
In addition to bankruptcy records, Wisconsin record custodians also maintain judgments, contracts, Wisconsin liens, and writs. While these records may be deemed public information per state law, requestors may be required to meet specific eligibility requirements to access them, as well as cover the cost of research and copying.
How Do I Find My Case Number in Wisconsin?
A case number is a unique number assigned to individual court cases. Case numbers are used to determine the year a case was filed, the office where it was filed, and the judicial officer to whom it was assigned. Wisconsin case numbers can be found using the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (WCCA) and the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Case Access (WSCCA) portals. By using other search alternatives to the case number option, such as a case party name, attorney number, or business name, case numbers can be found from the resulting search lists.
Case numbers may also be found by contacting the courthouses where the cases are on file. Note that the record custodians in those courthouses may charge nominal fees for conducting a search. Requesters will be required to provide as much information as possible about requested records to aid a quick and accurate search. A case number is quite useful to record custodians in that it helps them to track and quickly find requested records.
Can You Look up Court Cases in Wisconsin?
Yes, court records for non-confidential court cases are available to be accessed in Wisconsin. Interested persons may look up cases remotely via the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (WCCA) and the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Case Access (WSCCA) portals. WCCA provides online access to case information from the Circuit Courts, while WSCCA provides public access to case information from the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. Court cases may be accessed through in-person requests to the courthouses where the cases are filed. The public access terminals in the offices of the Clerks of Courts may be used to look up court cases. This service may attract a nominal fee.
Does Wisconsin Hold Remote Trials?
Yes. Due to the restrictions placed as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic, many Wisconsin courts have functioned remotely since the state issued its first safer-at-home order in March 2020. Many hearings for juveniles, probate cases, and limited criminal procedures have occurred via PEXIP, an audio-visual service akin to zoom. Text messages, phone interviews, Zoom, and FaceTime are among methods used to stay in touch and handle some court processes ranging from depositions to electronic signatures on important documents in Wisconsin.
What Is the Wisconsin Supreme Court?
Located in the state capital, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is the apex court in the state. It has appellate jurisdiction over all the other courts in Wisconsin and has discretionary jurisdiction over which cases to review. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over cases that have not been heard in any other court in Wisconsin. It has regulatory authority over Wisconsin attorneys and shoulders the overall administrative duties of the state's court system.
The Supreme Court consists of 7 justices who are elected in statewide elections to 10-year terms. On the occasion of a vacancy, the Governor is permitted by law to appoint a justice until an election can be held. The justice who has served the longest continuous term is usually chosen as the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Wisconsin Court of Appeals?
The Wisconsin Court of Appeal is the intermediate appellate court in the state with the responsibility of correcting errors that occurred at the Circuit Court level. Decisions of the Circuit Court may be reviewed by the Court of Appeal by a petition from an aggrieved party. Appeals of nonfinal judgments or orders are accepted at the Court of Appeal's discretion.
The Court of Appeal does not take testimonies during its proceedings. It relies on the record from the Circuit Court and the written briefs of the parties to the case. Where judges of the court deem oral arguments beneficial to their decision, the attorneys may be asked to make presentations. The Court of Appeal issues a written decision in every case and a committee decides which decisions will be published. Published decisions may be cited as precedential authority. The Wisconsin Supreme Court recognizes that the Court of Appeals possesses a law-defining and law-development function. Published opinions of the court are binding precedent until overruled by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeal has 4 district divisions and 16 judges. Judges are elected to six-year terms in district-wide, non-partisan elections. Division I based in Milwaukee County has 4 judges. Division II based in Waukesha also has 4 judges. Division III based in Green Bay has 3 judges. Division IV based in Madison has 5 judges. A Chief judge from among the 16 judges is appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee administrative operations for the Court of Appeals. The Chief Judges appoint a judge in each district to preside over the district.
Wisconsin Circuit Courts?
Recognized as the state's trial courts, Wisconsin Circuit Courts have original jurisdiction over all civil and criminal matters in the state, including juvenile, probate, traffic infractions, and civil and criminal jury trials. Circuit Courts are separated into branches with at least one branch in every county, except for six counties that are paired and share judges. Shawano/Menominee, Buffalo/Pepin, and Florence/Forest are the paired counties. In all, there are currently 249 Circuit Court judges in Wisconsin.
The Circuit Courts are each headed by an administrative team consisting of a Chief Judge chosen by the Supreme Court from among the circuit judges in the district, a deputy chief judge handpicked by the chief judge, and a district court administrator who serves full-time. In addition to administrative duties, both chief judges and their deputies help in maintaining caseloads except in rare cases.
Wisconsin Municipal Courts?
Many municipalities in Wisconsin join together to form one court. These municipalities may not be contiguous or even in the same county. Any number of municipalities may join and voters in all the municipalities elect the judges. Municipal Courts handle cases involving traffic, parking, and ordinance matters, including first-time drunk offenses. Many of the cases heard in the Municipal Courts also include juvenile matters, such as truancy, underage drinking, drug offenses, and curfew violations. Animal control violations, health code violations, trespass, disorderly conduct, underage alcohol, and building code violations cases are commonly brought before Municipal Courts.
Municipal Court cases are heard before judges and not juries. Court cases may be initiated by summons, complaints, or with a citation. Decisions of the court may include penalties such as money fines, or an order to pay restitution and court fees. A defendant may choose not to appear in court and simply pay imposed fines to dispose of a case or appear before the court to plead guilty, no contest, or request a trial by pleading guilty.
Decisions of the Municipal Courts may be appealed at the Circuit Courts. An aggrieved party may choose to request a jury trial, otherwise, the Circuit Court is only obliged to review the decision based on the written transcript of the court case in the Municipal Court.
Judges in the Municipal Courts are elected to terms of varying years as determined by the laws of the municipality in which they are established. Judges are not required to be licensed attorneys, even though some of them are. The majority of Municipal Court judges serve part-time but are required to participate in continuing education programs and must carry out their duties in line with the Judicial Code of Conduct. Wisconsin has over 230 Municipal Court judges. Milwaukee has the largest Municipal Court, three serving full-time judges, and handles over 110,000 cases annually.