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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Locking Up the Public Record

The trial courts cast about for ways to save some money or make some money, and a couple clerks say that long searches of court records should be paid for.

"The discussion revolved around the fact that the fee had to be reasonably related to the services provided," said Sonoma's presiding judge.

But there is already a state law covering searches that take a long time. A search of court records that takes over ten minutes triggers a charge of fifteen dollars.

So the Administrative Office of the Courts takes over the clerks' idea for a fee "reasonably related to services" and, strangely, turns it into its opposite -- a new law that uncouples the search fee from the work involved.

The fee is now arbitrary, tied solely to the number of files that are provided, no matter whether they take a few seconds to hand over the counter or take a long time to gather.

The wrong-way nature of the proposal from the administrative office is perhaps not surprising, given its history on the handling of public funds, including the half-billion dollars misspent on a defunct software program.

But it would have a heck of an impact.

A standard part of a journalist's job in covering a courthouse is to look for news in the stack of new cases filed that day. At ten dollars a file, the act of handing the stack to a reporter would trigger a fee of hundreds of dollars.

On an average day, for example, the fee would come to $400 for 40 new files in San Jose's superior court and $700 for 70 files in San Francisco's superior court, translating to $64,000 and $182,000 a year.

That's roughly a quarter-million-dollars a year to cover only two courts in California -- an amount that no newspaper will pay or can afford to pay.

But nobody really expects members of the public or journalists to pay such amounts.

In proposing the new fee to the Legislature, the bureaucrats of the administrative office said they could not measure its fiscal impact. That inability stands in marked contrast to a range of additional fees proposed by the same bureaucrats who found it quite possible to guess at the dollar amounts to be gained.

The true reason that fiscal impact cannot be determined is because there will be next to none. Few will be able to pay the exorbitant charges.

It will in fact operate as a punitive measure.

If you really want to look at the public record, the court is going to sock it to you.

Now, the idea is said to have come out of a couple courts, among them Placer County. The clerk there said the new law is needed because, "We don't keep a timer or stop watch for staff."

That excuse was echoed almost to the word by an administrative office lobbyist who told a California Senate budget committee, "It's hard to determine when you hit that stop watch," suggesting a natural likeness of mind or shared talking points.

So that is what it all boils down to.

The court administrators want to turn public access on its head and in practice lock the public record away from the public -- because it is too much trouble to keep track of time.

The tricky part of the proposal is that court budgets have taken a huge hit and many court workers are being laid off. So the natural reaction to any objection to the fee is to say, you folks want a free ride.

But that blunderbuss of an argument breaks down here because the fee is unlikely to generate income. It will instead lock up the public record.

Thus the courts' central bureaucrats have taken a reasonable idea and mismanaged it just as they have mismanaged much of the courts' money.

Is there no end to this plague.

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