California Makes A Move To Further Separate The Public From Its Public Records

from the our-paywall-now-insurmountably-higher! dept

The fact that the public is still charged fees to access public records already seems rather questionable. After all, the creation of these documents is paid for by taxpayers. Keeping them locked up behind a governmental paywall often seems like double-dipping.

It’s time to add one more to the list of government entities continuing to separate the public from public records with access fees. This time it’s the state of California manning the ratchet.

A proposal to drastically increase fees for the public and press to look at court records is still up in the air after divergent votes from the California Senate and Assembly.

The fee, embodied in trailer bill language supported by the governor, the Judicial Council and its administrative arm, will inevitably restrict access to public documents and has raised an outcry from newspaper publishers and open-government advocates.

California courts already charge $15 for searches of court records that take more than 10 minutes.

The proposal from the Administrative Office of the Courts and backed by Gov. Jerry Brown would have the state charge $10 for every name, file or information that comes back on any search, regardless of the time spent.

$10 a search result? Granted, this would be an in-person, human-powered search at a courthouse, but this is ridiculous. Those pushing this increase have offered several different rationales for the increase (curb data mining, raise money, clerks not equipped with stopwatches), but have been completely unable to project whether this increase will offset the (apparently) increased costs.

One argument against the fee is that its advocates have not been able to tie it to an actual dollar amount, a fact admitted in a Judicial Council report that said: “The amount of revenue this proposal will bring in is impossible to estimate.”

It’s a government thing. Take a vague feeling that the public is draining public services of money and use this non-estimate as justification for a rate hike. Meanwhile, supporters will likely continue to count unhatched budgetary chickens without considering the worst case scenario (which is also the most common scenario associated with tax hikes). Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Association points out what should be obvious to lawmakers at this point:

“…[I]f it’s adopted there is going to be very little additional funding, because people just aren’t going to make the request. There’s going to be even less understanding of government court activities. It’s very shortsighted.”

You raise the price, you get fewer purchasers. Government services aren’t that much different from retail services, especially when the “consumer” is paying directly.

So, how does something this unpopular (at least with open government advocates and the press) get as far as this did? Easy. All you have to do is move quickly and exclude interested parties from the discussion.

The votes in both houses were taken at budget subcommittee hearings dealing with a host of judicial branch issues. There was no debate or discussion at either hearing.

The Assembly committee rejected the fee increase. The Senate committee approved it, with a stipulation that members of the press be exempt. There is no language, at this point, on what a press exemption would entail.

There’s an exemption, but no one outside of the involved legislators has the details. What seems to be certain is that fees will be increasing, something a cash-strapped government like California’s would be unlikely to reject. At this point, the fee increase is scheduled to head to a conference committee for further discussion. Ewert hopes this one will actually involve the public.

Ewert said he hopes lawmakers will give the CNPA and other press and freedom of information groups the opportunity to provide input.

“[I]t’s just a bad idea to deny access to records that the public has already paid for, and shield the public from an institution that it already has very little understanding about.”

As Ewert points out, this rate hike will only increase the distance between the public and the records they should rightfully have access to. Worse, it will disproportionately affect citizens with limited income. This increase, if passed, will not only allow the state to tax its constituents multiple times for the same records, it will turn public record access into a privilege, rather than a right.

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Comments on “California Makes A Move To Further Separate The Public From Its Public Records”

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14 Comments
Matthew Cline (profile) says:

If this was just to offset the costs, they could simply buy the clerks some stopwatches and charge by the minute. That would be easier to tie into the costs involved, and the charges would be much less discouraging to the public that wanted to do searches.

Of course, if the intent to get the government more income without raising taxes… Well, like Jim Ewert said, “[I]f it’s adopted there is going to be very little additional funding, because people just aren’t going to make the request“, but I guess hope springs eternal.

Anonymous Coward says:

to be fair, this IS for an in-person search, i.e. somebody has to be employed to look at all the records to find the relevant ones- it’s arguable that the people who want to access the data should pay the cost of finding it.

on the other hand, it’d probably be cheaper to digitize the records and make them available online for free- then whoever needs the data can search it themselves.

In short- if they can prove the cost of finding each search result is $10, then the fee is justified. If not, then the fee is not justified.

Jayster says:

Re: Re:

So by your logic, if your neighbor has a swimming pool and you don’t, it’s your right to go swimming in his pool any time you want to.

Also, the reason Gov’ts are drowning in red ink is that they are spending more than they’re taking in. I understand that California already has one of the highest tax rates in the country. They would have more money if they spent less on wasteful programs.

WH Magill (profile) says:

California makes a move to hide government wrongdoing

It is clear that the SOLE purpose of this proposal is to hide from ANY public scrutiny the wrongdoings of the public officials of California.

The simple fact that those proposing this “fee” are unable to estimate either the costs which it is supposed to cover or the revenue which will be raised says that the purpose is nefarious — to hide information from the public.

The legal system cannot operate in the light of day. It is predicated upon secrecy and “deals.” — deals which invariably hide the terms of the deal and the negotiators of it from public view. Now the courts propose to make things even more difficult for anyone without “deep pockets” to find out what is happening.

Corrupt. That is putting it mildly. The proposal and those proposing it are rotten to the core.

It sounds like the California Senate in supporting this also has much to hide.

They can deny my allegations all they want and come up with “plausable” explanations for this proposal, however, their actions put LIE to their words and convict them.

Yet another move by friends of Obamma to restrict the First Amendment and Freedom of the Press.

Anonymous Coward says:

I can just see it now

Customer walks in a requests to see a specific file.

Worker says “Hang on a second”, walks to the back, picks up a stack of 400-500 records and brings em forward. That’s $5,000. Oh and if you want the search results organized or ordered by relevance, that will be another $5,000.

KM says:

Court Record Fees (NEW)

So – I guess the courts will have to hire more clerks so we can stand in a long line for a $10.00 fee and hope that one file will give us the needed information. EXCEPT the courts are not going to hire anymore clerks – what a stupid stupid idea to charge the average citizen to look at a file. Has anyone thought about the costs it will take to start this – really such as extra clerks – California – I give up – it really is not a place to do business anymore.

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