Courts Fairly Transparent, but not Their Bureaucracy, Watchdog Says


     (CN) - Whether the bureaucracy at the top of California's courts follows its own rules on transparency is in dispute, with one of California's foremost public watchdogs saying Wednesday that, "The Administrative Office of the Courts has been singularly unresponsive."
     The administrative office, however, said it did reply to the document requests, and a spokesman argued that the agency has a record of the records being sent some time ago.
     While individual trial courts were generally helpful in the group's survey, two courts, San Bernardino Superior Court and San Diego Superior Court, refused to disclose any information from their executive committee meetings claiming a privilege.     
     According to an audit conducted by Californians Aware throughout 2013, "California courts are generally prompt and forthcoming in sharing with the public basic information about how they are administered, including specifics about the pay, benefits, and outside financial interests of judges and key executives."
     "But they could do a better job of informing the public of its right of access to such information," the group's report added. "And the Administrative Office of the Courts has been singularly unresponsive."
     CalAware made requests of all 58 trial courts and the Administrative Office of the Courts for public records to see how well they complied with Rule of Court 10.500.
     The rule mandating disclosure of public records has been in effect for four years. In an interview, CalAware General Counsel Terry Francke said his group decided to conduct the audit "to see whether those governed by the rules understand and observe them."
     CalAware asked the AOC for agendas and minutes of the Judicial Council's technology, executive and trial court budget committee meetings, the resumes and economic interests of the AOC's director, general counsel and top three highest paid executives and any written policies governing public or press access to judicial administrative records.
     The audit says the AOC responded to only four of the ten requests, providing only the executive's resumes, the resumes of the head clerks for each appellate court, and the economic interests of the head clerks and all recently appointed appellate justices.
     However, the AOC claims they responded to all requests. An email from an AOC spokesperson to Francke says the files may have been too large, and they had sent him a link to a file containing the requested records. A copy of that email with the link was provided to Francke.
     But Francke said he never received the initial email with that link. "Their IT people say their response was sitting in their sent file. I had nothing like that in my incoming files," Francke said in an interview.
     Francke said he would post an update to the audit saying the AOC claims it responded to all requests.
     Forty percent of the trial courts responded within ten days, as required by the rule, and were generally forthcoming about their judges' and head clerks' outside financial interests, their court executive committees' agendas and minutes, supplemental benefits paid to judges by some counties and their clerks' resumes.
     "The first response of many was a simple acknowledgment of receipt. Others provided some substantive answers-either a partial or complete response. Forty-five courts-77.5 percent-made an initial response within 10 days," the audit said, adding, there were some "interesting responses."
     For example, superior courts in San Diego and San Bernardino said their executive board agendas and minutes were exempt from disclosure, under the "official records privilege."
     "The Court's Executive Committee is a deliberative body and minutes or other records of its discussions, decisions, recommendations and actions are protected from disclosure by rule 10.500(f)(11) of the Rules of Court," an email to CalAware from San Bernardino head clerk Debra Meyers.
     "Additionally, it is in the best interest of the Court, and the community it serves, to promote candid and thoughtful discussion during committee meetings; the direct result of which is deliberate and objective actions by the committee," she said. "Disclosing the agenda(s) and minutes could inhibit discussion and thereby impact the actions of the committee."
     CalAware also requested records showing the dollar value of any supplemental benefits paid to judges by the county throughout 2012. The audit found, "Los Angeles County in recent years supplemented its superior court judges' salaries in two ways, with a tax-free benefits cafeteria plan that could be cashed out (as ordinary income) at a judge's discretion, and with a taxable cash payment intended-but not audited-to support professional development activities."
     It continued, "All but three of those respondent courts receiving county benefit supplements provided enough detail to determine the dollar value of the benefits awarded each judge by name, exactly as requested. But Los Angeles and Orange County Superior Courts provided a description of how the local benefits program works, with no names or individual benefit listings. Sacramento Superior Courts listed the local benefits paid to each of its 21 judges-but identified them only with a number."
     Courts were generally responsive to CalAware's request for their head clerk's resume. Forty courts provided those resumes, twelve were promoted internally, one court no longer had the resume, one took 30 days to produce, one had no head clerk, one court said it was exempt and one did not respond.
     Los Angeles Superior Court Senior Administrator Gregory Drapac replied, "Los Angeles Superior Court Administrator Gregory C. Drapac stated that the executive officer's "application would be a personnel file within the meaning of CRC 10.500(f)(2), and hence exempt from disclosure."
     But the audit went on to cite Rule 10.500(d)(1). "Unless otherwise indicated, the terms used in this rule have the same meaning as under the Legislative Open Records Act (Gov. Code, § 9070 et seq.) and the California Public Records Act (Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq.) and must be interpreted consistently with the interpretation applied to the terms under those acts."
     "There were some curious claims of exemption in a couple of courts," Francke said, but he added that overall, "I didn't get any sense of real resistance. Overall I've got to say the courts came out much better than the institutions we've previously audited in law enforcement and public education."