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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Battle Lines Drawn Over San Onofre Records

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A state court judge has held off deciding whether he has jurisdiction to force the California Public Utilities Commission to disclose documents involving the $4.4 billion shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

At a hearing Tuesday in San Francisco, Judge Ernest Goldsmith asked for further briefing on what he called "a matter of tremendous interest and of concern to millions of people."

The commission has refused to make public roughly 130 documents, as its lawyers argue that statutory exemptions shield the materials from requests made under the state Public Records Act.

In May, Michael Aguirre sued the commission for papers related to what he says was a plan by former commission president Michael Peevey and current president Michael Picker to kill an internal investigation into who allowed unlicensed steam generators to operate at San Onofre.

In court Tuesday, Goldsmith asked Aguirre, who is an attorney representing himself, to sharpen his claims.

"It appeared to me, Mr. Aguirre, that your request for documents was quite broad," Goldsmith said, asking him to answer whether he wanted documents related to the closing of the nuclear power plant or the decision to pass $3.3 billion of the cost of the shutdown to utility customers.

"The answer is those related to the money," Aguirre said.

Lawyers for the commission argue that it has discretion over records requests, and that under statute, only California's Supreme Court and appellate districts can reverse or change an official commission decision.

"Deciding how best to balance the Public Records Act's demands for transparency and openness with those provisions of the Public Utilities Code mandating confidentiality is clearly an 'official act' of the commission, which lies beyond this court's reach," the commission claims in a court filing.

Commission lawyer Mitchell Shapson told the court, "We don't see a distinction between setting rates and responding to Public Records Act requests."

Goldsmith questioned commission assumptions.

"It seems to me that the Public Utilities Code seeks to have this court make an extraordinary finding, that Public Records Act requests are regulatory matters," Goldsmith said.

"This is a matter of tremendous interest and of concern to millions of people in the Los Angeles Basin and in San Diego," he added.

As he wrestled with jurisdiction, Goldsmith touched on the merits of the case, asking commission lawyers how the public interest was served by not disclosing the documents.

"What statute gives the commission authority to deny a public records request?" Goldsmith asked.

Jonathan Koltz, also from the commission, said that using the Public Utilities Code exemptions to the Public Records Act is not a refusal to abide by the act.

"There's nothing to construe here," he said, calling the statute "very clear."

"This type of action, where a plaintiff is challenging the commission in Superior Court, there is no jurisdiction under (statute)," he said.

The case will resume Jan. 21, following further briefing by the parties on the issue of jurisdiction.

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