Wisconsin Supreme Court changes rule, will only publicly post eviction records for two years instead of 20

October 12, 2023
Ben Marquis

Rental property owners and landlords in Wisconsin received some bad news on Monday with regard to their efforts to ensure that prospective tenants can actually pay the monthly rent.

That is because the liberal-led Wisconsin Supreme Court voted 4-3 on Monday to change its rules with respect to substantially reducing the length of time an individual's eviction records can be publicly posted on a state-run website, Fox News reported.

Whereas an individual's eviction records have previously been made publicly available on the court's website for 20 years, that time frame will now be reduced to just two years going forward, making it more difficult for landlords and property owners to determine the prior rental history of prospective tenants.

Legal group argued for reduction in availability of eviction records

According to The Cap Times, a nonprofit group known as Legal Action of Wisconsin filed a petition last year with the Wisconsin Supreme Court that asked it to change its longstanding rule on how long eviction records would be retained and made available on its website.

In support of that request, the group argued that 20 years was far too long for eviction records to be publicly posted and made it harder and more unfair for some renters, particularly those who are low-income or minorities, to obtain affordable and safe housing.

"There are two sides and you're giving more liberty to a landlord than you give to a tenant," Legal Action attorney Carmen Ayers said during a September hearing. "We believe the records just shouldn't exist, but we also realize that this is a reality that we cannot request. It's the court's obligation to somehow use its power for good and, in this case, we believe that that is scrubbing these records."

Fellow Legal Action attorney Korey Lundin also argued at that hearing that the requested change was necessary since eviction records can negatively affect "a basic human need of having a roof over your head."

"No other court records impact that basic human need in the way eviction records do," he added. "We're only asking that the state not be the one to put this information out there. There are plenty of private market solutions to this that landlords have come up with."

Decision "feels like a very odd policy response," says dissenting justice

Fox News noted that several landlord groups argued against the proposed change to the rule as property owners relied on the posted eviction records as part of their efforts to screen prospective tenants, and asserted that not having that particular information readily available would likely result in higher rent and larger security deposits or advanced payments as a way for landlords to protect themselves from tenants with a history of being evicted for non-payment of rent.

Yet, per WPR, those arguments were summarily dismissed by Legal Action's Lundin, who said, "It's an argument that has been used for decades to try and stop the advance of progress of rights of renters," and added, "With the housing market being in such crisis as it is now, the vacancy rates for most rentals are so incredibly low, that we don't expect landlords to be increasing fees over these sorts of things."

The Cap Times noted that the court on Monday was split along partisan lines on the issue, 4-3, with the liberal majority siding with tenants while the conservative majority, who raised several objections and potential problems, such as "logistical concerns" and extra work for court clerks, sided with property owners.

"Shutting down court records as the answer to solve this problem just feels like a very odd policy response," conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn said. "It just feels very odd to me that we as a court would step in (and) close access to public records as the response to this issue."

New eviction records rule will take effect in 2025

WPR reported that, presuming all seven justices sign off on the draft rule change in the same way that they voted on Monday, the new rule reducing the public availability of eviction records would go into effect beginning in 2025.

The Cap Times noted that Legal Action said in a statement of the approved rule change, "When families have an eviction on their record, it often means that they are forced into higher-cost and lower-quality housing -- increasing the likelihood of future eviction. By removing the record of an eviction filing sooner, we hope more Wisconsin families will be able to find and secure safe and affordable housing at a reasonable cost thus improving their family stability."

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