(CN) - A bill written by California's Administrative Office of the Courts would impose a $10 fee on every court file requested by a journalist, a fee that would inevitably limit access to public documents.
"It would be intolerable for a journalist and for press coverage in general," said Terry Francke of the open government group Californians Aware. "The rate that you're talking about is absolutely prohibitive."
Judges and court clerks conceded that the fee would apply to nearly everyone who wants to look at a court file, including journalists who regularly review a large number of files in covering a courthouse.
"If you asked for 10 files and you're a reporter, it's probably going to be $100 in that situation," said Santa Clara County's head court clerk, David Yamasaki.
Sonoma's Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau added, in reference to the press corps, "You may have a problem there."
The fee has been put forward by the courts' central administrative office as part of trailer bill, legislation that rides in the wake of the overall budget bill and receives little public deliberation. The trailer bill procedure has been used by the court administrative office in the past and brought intense controversy within the judiciary.
"Putting this in a trailer bill is going to strike most people as a deliberate attempt to lowball it," Francke said.
According to the bill, a $10 fee would be levied for "each name, file or other information for which a search is requested." The sole exception is for a person who is a party in the case where a file is requested.
The broad language of the trailer bill amends an earlier section of the state government code that applied a $15 fee to searches that took over ten minutes, tying the fee to the amount of work involved. It was rarely invoked because it normally takes less than ten minutes to retrieve a file.
"This approach completely ignores the public's role in being able to see how the system operates," said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a group that includes 850 California newspapers, large and small, from the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and San Jose Mercury News to the Fremont Argus, Lodi News-Herald, Santa Cruz Sentinel and Bakersfield Californian.
The idea for the fee rose through a series of committees closed to the public.
A working group of seven judges and seven clerks took up the idea from suggestions by individual courts, passed it along to an ad hoc committee of judges and clerks who pushed it along to a legislative policy committee made up of judges and one clerk. All those committees were closed. That last one wrote a report on proposed "efficiencies" that was summarized in non-specific terms before the Judicial Council, which is open to the press.
The report was not debated or voted on by the council.
The language imposing the fee was then pushed by bureaucrats in the courts' administrative office over to those in the governor's finance department who then sent it over to the Legislature as a bill that is hooked to the budget. Trailer bills proceed in a group through the Legislature's budget committees and become part of a furious round of horse trading that accompanies the budget's passage.