California Legislature Kills $10 Fee for Search of Public Court Records

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A trailer bill that would have severely limited press and public access to court documents has died in the California Legislature, after widespread editorial condemnation from the state's newspapers. The defeated proposal was put forward by the Administrative Office of the Courts and would have resulted in a charge of $10 per file to look at court records.
     While court administrators pushed the fee as a way to raise revenue, freedom of information advocates said the proposal would in practice wall off the public record. The political and editorial fallout resulted in a self-inflicted wound for court bureaucrats, with legislators blasting the fee and those that proposed it.
     "Most agreed that it would be horrible public policy," said Jim Ewert, General Counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a group that lobbied fiercely against the proposal. The fee was part of a trailer bill, a form of legislation that trails in the wake of the budget.
     During an early hearing on the trailer bill, Bob Blumenfield, chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, lectured the bureaucrats on their fiscal conduct.
     'While the state grappled with the budget crisis, court administrators have sometimes acted fiscally irresponsible even though fiscal responsibility was the mantra of the day," said Blumenfield.
     The search fee took a few twists and turns as it was caught up in the deal-making that comes with California's budget.
     Neither the Senate nor the Assembly had shown support for the search fee, Ewert pointed out, but very late in the process the Senate inserted a vague "press exemption" into the proposal. But no specific language defined the exemption, how it would be applied nor who was entitled to invoke the exemption.
     A Senate budget subcommittee then approved the fee with a press exemption. While the fee failed in the Assembly's budget committee.
     On Monday evening, a joint budget conference committee representing both chambers voted to accept the Assembly version of the bill, which meant the fee proposal, after weeks of wrangling and criticism, was dead.
     "That's one of the great mysteries," said Ewert of how the exemption came to be inserted into the trailer bill. "All I can speculate is that the Assembly wanted to protect every person's ability to obtain this information very important information and not just the press," said Ewert.
     The defeat of the fee followed a statewide blast from newspaper editorial pages
     The Monterey County Herald , among many, pointed out the importance of access to court files.
     "A $10 fee would be devastating to newspapers and other news operations, especially relatively small ones such as The Herald. Newspapers this size review dozens of new court files each month in search of potential stories -- many of them about important public business."
     The opposition came not only from newspapers but from groups that look up historical records, such as the Sonoma County Historical Society.
     "I write to oppose the proposed $10 fee to search California court records," wrote Jeremy Nichols, president of the historical society, in a letter to Senator Noreen Evans. "Our 500+ members cannot afford to pay $10 for every court record they see for their volunteer work or personal research."
     Open government advocates such as the Society of Professional Jounalists and Californians Aware also criticized the search fee. Cal Aware's Terry Francke referred to it as "fee-jacking."
     In the Legislature, the fee landed in a minefield of criticism.
     In his extraordinary lecture to court officials, budget committee chair Blumenfield referred to the court administrative office's history of wasteful spending.
     "We've seen a failed computer system with cost overruns of nearly $500 million wasted," Blumenfield told the officials. "In the process, the courts took millions from trial courts which actually sacrificed access to justice to keep the failed computer project running."
     He also referred to another administrative office financial controversy that is in the making. "This year the court system will likely enter an agreement to spend $100 million more than we should to build a new courthouse in Long Beach."
     "For these reasons," he concluded, "the courts have had a bumpy road in the Legislature."
     The fee idea also came as one in a series of policies and initiatives by the administrative office that have been criticized for shielding the office from transparency.
     The administrative office has, for example, proposed rules that would delay access to court records until they have been officially accepted, a process that can take weeks and destroys the news interest in a new court filing.
     The office has also denied information requests by an association of judges that says the administrative office is "transparent as the Iron Curtain."
     "Over the last year, efforts to obtain public records from the AOC have been routinely ignored, denied, delayed," said the Alliance of California Judges. The administrative office's reaction to requests for information, said the Alliance, "is an assault on the basic notion of open government that as Americans we expect of those who are funded by public dollars."
     Judges in the Alliance criticized the search fee as a "ham-handed" idea that was "apparently created in non-public meetings by unidentified AOC staff and others."
     Legislators evidently heard those complaints.
     As part of the budget, they are telling the Judicial Council to conduct all of its business in open, public meetings. The push to open up those meetings applies directly to the way the search fee was generated, through a series of council committees closed to the public.
     Specifically, the legislation includes a provision saying that no later than October 1st, the Judicial Council "shall adopt a rule regarding open meeting requirements." The rule applies to "any committee, subcomittee, advisory group, task force or similar multi-member body that reviews issues and reports to the Judicial Council."
     It also requires telephonic access to anyone who requests it and requires public notice.
     Ewert with the newspaper association said the death of the search fee is a good sign for press access, in a bleak time when the national administration is pursuing the records of journalists.
     "I think it bodes well for press access," said Ewert. "Especially in light of recent events with respect to the Associated Press and the federal Department of Justice going after phone records. It's renewed a focus on the trust the public has in the press to provide accurate and truthful information about government activities. Now with this decision the press will be able to do that with respect to the courts."