Searching Court Records Will Cost a Lot More, if California Senate Has Its Way

     SACRAMENTO (CN) - A proposal to drastically increase fees for the public and press to look at court records is still up in the air after divergent votes from the California Senate and Assembly.
     The fee, embodied in trailer bill language supported by the governor, the Judicial Council and its administrative arm, will inevitably restrict access to public documents and has raised an outcry from newspaper publishers and open-government advocates.
     California courts already charge $15 for searches of court records that take more than 10 minutes.
     The proposal from the Administrative Office of the Courts and backed by Gov. Jerry Brown would have the state charge $10 for every name, file or information that comes back on any search, regardless of the time spent.
     The rationale offered for the increased fee has varied: from a need to curb data-mining, to raising money for courts, to the notion that court clerks don't have stop watches to measure whether their file-gathering takes longer than 10 minutes.
     One argument against the fee is that its advocates have not been able to tie it to an actual dollar amount, a fact admitted in a Judicial Council report that said: "The amount of revenue this proposal will bring in is impossible to estimate."
     "What's so egregious is they can't even come up with a number associated with this plan," said Jim Ewert, of the 800-member California Newspaper Publishers Association.
     "Part of the reason for this is because if it's adopted there is going to be very little additional funding, because people just aren't going to make the request. There's going to be even less understanding of government court activities. It's very shortsighted."
     The votes in both houses were taken at budget subcommittee hearings dealing with a host of judicial branch issues.
     There was no debate or discussion at either hearing.
     The Assembly committee rejected the fee increase. The Senate committee approved it, with a stipulation that members of the press be exempt.
     There is no language, at this point, on what a press exemption would entail.
     Ewert said the CNPA was blindsided by the addition of an exemption.
     "No one involved us in any of those conversations," he said.
     He said the exemption was added before the hearing on Thursday and he found out about it that morning.
     State Senator Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee that approved the increased fee, was unavailable for comment.
     But she has voiced strong opposition to the fee, as have other lawmakers.
     "If there were high fees for an investigative reporter, the Watergate scandal may never have been revealed," Hancock said in a March interview.
     "Piecemeal fee increases can add up to a real lack of access for reporters, for low-income and middle-income people as they seek our justice system."
     Ewert said the so-called press exemption is not an adequate solution.
     "Had we known with advance notice, I would have been able to talk to Hancock and explained why it wouldn't have worked for newspapers," he said. "Our opposition to the proposal remains.
     "Number one, we don't know what the exemption does. Number two, it's just a bad idea to deny access to records that the public has already paid for, and shield the public from an institution that it already has very little understanding about."
     Since the committees' votes differed, the proposal will go to a conference committee.
     Ewert said he hopes lawmakers will give the CNPA and other press and freedom of information groups the opportunity to provide input. Even with an exemption, he said, the brunt of the fee's harm will be borne by the poor.
     "The people who are going to be very significantly disadvantaged by this are from low-income neighborhoods. To do any legal research using cases that they're pulling from the clerk's office, you've just taken that away from them," Ewert said.