(CN) - The California court bureaucracy's campaign to assess a $10-per-file fee for every record request has brought a tide of criticism from key legislators, judges and newspapers, saying the proposed legislation would "bring the shades down" and "have a negative impact on our democracy."
"When we use the judicial system like that we're neutralizing the ability to enforce our laws, which will have a negative impact on our democracy," said state Senator Noreen Evans, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "A document fee reduces transparency in government, denies access to public records and it also impacts journalists who cover the courts."
The senator, a democrat from Santa Rosa, is also a member of the courts' rule-making Judicial Council. She has been a staunch defender of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and supported many initiatives from the chief's staff in the Administrative Office of the Courts, the same bureaucracy that is pushing the new search fee.
Evans' opposition is a strong indicator of legislative wind direction on the trailer bill that would enact the fee.
The senator also slammed Governor Brown's Department of Finance which is backing the proposal, saying the Brown administration is strong-arming the courts into become a fee-for-service branch of government. "The Department of Finance is forcing the courts to try to raise fees," said Evans. "What the Department of Finance doesn't understand is the judicial branch is not just another agency of government that can raise fees."
A second key legislator, Senator Loni Hancock, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee vetting the trailer bill, is also critical of the charge.
"Piecemeal fee increases can add up to a real lack of access for reporters, for low income and middle income people as they seek our justice system," said Hancock in a recent interview. "So in the interest of transparency in a democracy as well as access to justice for all people, it's of great concern to me to increase those fees."
Under existing law in California, courts charge $15 for searches of court records that take over 10 minutes. The proposal put forward by the administrative office and backed by Brown would change the government code to charge $10 for every name, file or information that comes back on any search, regardless of the time spent.
The rationale behind the new fee has been varied and muddled.
Supporters first said the fee was aimed at data miners but did not provide a definition of who they are. Then they said they needed money for the courts even though they cannot say what funds, if any, the fee would bring in. Then they simply said they do not have stop watches -- to measure the ten minutes required under current law to trigger a search charge.
Most searches are quick and come back in much less time. But, as the judges and legislators pointed out, the new fee would cause anyone to think twice before asking to look at court records.