SACRAMENTO (CN) - A long list of broad exceptions attached to a draft rule that would open Judicial Council committee meetings to the press and public was met with cautious criticism Thursday from reporters and newspaper advocates.
"This is really open to wide discretion by whoever is on the committee," said Jim Ewert, General Counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "The exemptions they have created are very, very broad."
Judicial Council committee chiefs, including Judge Kenneth So and Justice Douglas Miller, said the rule still needs a lot of work.
"We are going to take all the input, and in all likelihood will be narrowing some of these exemptions," said So who heads the Public Coordination and Liaison Committee that advises on legislation.
"We've done a great job in creating a presumption of openness. We have to balance that with how we do business," said Miller who heads the powerful Executive and Planning Committee that sets the agenda and the overall direction of the Judicial Council.
Steven Maviglio, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker John Perez, said the rule is still at a very early stage. "They're just taking the first baby steps," said Maviglio. "It's very early in the game."
The lengthy list of broad exemptions in the draft rule would allow committee chairs to close meetings when the subjects are security plans, raw data and statistics, the buying of property, legislative strategy, agenda setting, anything that involves attorney and client -- in all 17 exemptions, many of them with little or no definition.
The Judicial Council has a history of making decisions in closed-door committees followed by open Judicial Council sessions where the committee decisions are unanimously approved with little or no debate. Trial judges have said the council simply "rubber stamps" the decisions made secretly by the committees.
That manner of decision making drew the Legislature's attention this summer when lawmakers included a clause in the 2013 budget mandating open meetings for all the council's myriad advisory committees, sub-committees, working groups and task forces.
Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the clause after lobbying from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who also said she was committed to opening as many committee meetings as possible. The Legislature then wrote language into a supplemental report requiring the Judicial Council to create more transparent meeting rules.
Pushing to comply with that language, the heads of the council's big four internal committees -- that set the council's agenda, propose new court rules, oversee court technology and advise on legislation -- presented the new rule at a press conference Thursday morning.
The press briefing took place in a pink-walled hearing room at the Capitol with the judges at a semi-circular table facing red, theatre-style seats where about 20 reporters asked questions, a far greater number than the one or two who attend Judicial Council meetings.
Justice Miller said he recognized the need for transparency when the courts are spending more than $3 billion in public money to run the biggest courts system in the nation.
"It's something we want to get right. It's something we're invested in and it's important to the public," Miller told the reporters. "If we are going to spend public money it should be in a public setting."
He characterized the draft proposal as a big move towards transparency, but noted its rough nature and the need for refining the language, particularly for the exemptions.