In Wisconsin, Court files are generally open and subject to public inspection, as part of the state Open Records Law.   That is why a political news story yesterday caught my eye: a Judge in a Missouri congressman’s divorce sealed the file after a reporter asked to see it.  

Unless a Judge specifically orders otherwise, any person can go to a local Circuit Court Clerk of Courts office and ask to see a divorce file.  The entire file is an “open book,” save for a few documents.   We also have CCAP, part of the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access System, where a catalogue of most court filings is maintained in a public database.  The level of detail provided online as to the nature of the individual documents within a file seems to vary by county.

There are two documents which are not for public consumption:

  • Confidential Petition Addendum.  A couple of years ago, the law was (thankfully) changed to provide that instead of putting people’s social security numbers in the Petition for Divorce, that information goes into a separate Confidential Petition Addendum.   The Addendum is placed into a sealed Court file.  The Court, the parties to the case and their attorneys are entitled to access this information.
  • Financial Disclosure Statement.  All parties to divorce are required to file sworn statements setting forth information about their income, expenses, assets and liabilities.  This document, known as a Financial Disclosure Statement, goes into a sealed Court file.  Only the Court, the parties to the case and their attorneys are entitled to access this information.

In Wisconsin, upon request, the Judge decides whether or not to seal a file.  In my local area the sealing of entire divorce files is a relatively rare occurrence, as confirmed by the Appleton Post-Crescent when the paper conducted an investigation of court files in its four-county readership area (Calumet, Outagamie, Waupaca and Winnebago Counties) earlier this year.  

As a result, for most people, their divorce is an open book for anyone to read.  The type of information in an open divorce file often includes:

  • Home address;
  • Occupation and/or employer;
  • Date of marriage;
  • Names and dates of birth of minor children;
  • Whether or not anyone in the family is receiving public assistance;
  • Whether or not the wife is pregnant;
  • In a custody dispute, specific claims about the other spouse: abuse, neglect, alcohol/drug use, etc.
  • A description of the assets being awarded to each spouse;
  • A description of the debts being assigned to each spouse;
  • What the custody and placement arrangements are in a case, and why.

Should this information be for public consumption?  Does the availability of CCAP make a difference? I’d love to hear what you think.

This is the second part of a three part post describing various legal research methods.


Although the resources described Part 1 are typically termed “primary” sources of law, they are not necessarily the best places to begin a search for legal information.  Primary research material is often tricky and cumbersome to search when you don’t know exactly what it is you are searching for, resulting in inefficient fishing expeditions. On the other hand, “secondary” sources, which are legal encyclopedias, law journals and the like, often enable the reader to more quickly focus on key issues and the related primary sources more quickly and easily.


            Researching the above authorities is a wonderful way in which legal professionals can use their investigative skills to the advantage of the client, wearing one’s “detective” hat has many other practical implications for the practice of law.  In my opinion, is a legal bonanza.  If you have not spent some time on this site, you will want to do so.  It has terrific features that even many attorneys are not aware of. 

Probably the best-known and most-loved feature of the Wisconsin courts site is the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program, commonly referred to as “CCAP.”  CCAP is a free database of all circuit court filings in Wisconsin’s 72 counties. (We use CCAP so frequently in our office that we have created a new verb – “CCAPed,” as in “Have you CCAPed this person?”)  CCAP has many practical uses. 


By using the “Simple Search” feature, one can track court filings in their own cases, or search by person to determine whether other parties have been involved in litigation before.  We CCAP all adverse parties, all lay witnesses (before we name them), all of our expert witnesses (before we hire them), all witnesses named by adverse parties, and all jurors on our voir dire lists.  We then discover whether people have criminal convictions, outstanding judgments, domestic abuse problems or prior injury cases.   


The “Reports” feature of CCAP also comes in handy from time to time.  This allows one to view judges’ and attorneys’ court calendars.  Find out just how much time is set aside for that motion hearing, or determine whether defense counsel is being truthful when he tells you his expert cannot be deposed for six more months because he has such a busy trial schedule.    

The Wisconsin Courts website also contains the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Case Access (WSCAA), at, which is the appellate court version of CCAP.  This site is especially valuable when one has an appellate case pending, because the court dockets deadlines and notes filings of documents.  The Clerk of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals also posts memos of opinions scheduled for release, which are nice to review if you are anxiously awaiting a decision.  

Other pearls to be found on the Wisconsin Courts website include a schedule of filing fees, standardized court forms for use in the Circuit Court, the Docketing Statement which must be filed with an appeal, and a table of all of the case classification codes.  Bookmark your favorites!


There is somewhat of a federal counterpart to CCAP, known as PACER.  It is the Federal electronic access system to U.S. District, Bankruptcy and Appellate courts.  Unlike CCAP, it is not free, but it is affordable at 8 cents per page. One must be a registered user to obtain the data.  PACER can be found at


Other states have varying degrees of open court records, with some open records being free and others subscription-based.  For example, some Illinois counties have their records on line, others do not. 


Practical information from many other government sources is in abundant supply once you know where to look.  Wisconsin Circuit Court Rules for all counties which have them are available on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s site – The Wisconsin Courts site publishes links to municipal court sites, which often include local ordinances.


The official State of Wisconsin website,, is the hub of all state departments and agencies.  For example, one can search corporate entity records at the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions,


In the final part of this post, coming soon, I will address how one can organize all of this research in such a way so that it can be effectively used in your cases.