“Pay for View” was an AOC plan from the start

Posted on March 27, 2013

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March 27, 2013

Dear Members and Others,

We attach an editorial penned by Bill Girdner of the Courthouse News. Suffice it to say, our branch leaders have gotten the attention of those in the media who report on court cases and who believe in open government. The author voices a concern that we share — some of the reporting on the “$10 pay for view” proposal has appeared to cast blame on the Governor or his Department of Finance for this assault on the First Amendment and open government. That could not be further from the truth.

A Report to the Judicial Council (link) dated December 14, 2012, lays out the council’s legislative priorities for 2013. On page 12 you will find language drafted by AOC staff amending the Government Code to charge the public $10 to view a “name, file, or other information for which a search is requested.” Our branch leaders standing by silently while the Governor and his Department of Finance are unfairly criticized for this gaffe hearkens back to the last time the AOC was caught attempting to gut Government Code sections concerning the management of the local trial courts. Then AOC staff affirmatively blamed the Department of Finance. Now, they seem content to allow a misleading impression to be made regarding the authorship of this misguided proposal.

We encourage you to read this report in its entirety, as it sheds additional light on what our handpicked leaders believe is essential in this year’s legislative session. We will point out only one additional item. On pages 7 and 8, the AOC proposes to defer audits for compliance with the Public Contracting Code unless specific funding is provided to the judicial branch to offset the cost for these audits.

As you know, the State Auditor recently released her audit findings of the first six local courts that were chosen to be audited. We learned from this audit that the AOC was up to its old tricks by providing incorrect data and excluding information required by the auditors. The six local courts were found to be substantially in compliance with the code. Ending the audits now would stop the State Auditor from auditing the “AOC and other judicial branch entities” as is required by December 15 of this year. It appears that the six local courts had the funds to pay for audits last year, but this year the central office appears to be broke and unable to afford an audit unless the General Fund provides the resources to do so. How convenient.
The Alliance believes that auditing the AOC is not a luxury that should only occur if extra funding is secured. Rather we believe it is of utmost importance that respected State Auditor Elaine Howle undertake this audit immediately. For those on the Judicial Council who champion and repeatedly claim that a new regime has embraced “greater transparency,” this proposal to kill off an audit speaks to their definition of transparency when it comes to their own operations.

As always, we will continue to keep you informed on matters concerning our branch.

Directors,

Alliance of California Judges

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Courthouse News Service

3/26/2012
Early and Right on the Search Fee

By BILL GIRDNER

Newspapers have gone through a great shakeout over the last couple decades. They are no longer the cash cows they were.

But a lot of them, particularly the smaller ones, are still kicking.

Like the Chico Enterprise-Record, Marysville Appeal Democrat, Hanford Sentinel, Lake County Record-Bee, Monterey County Herald, Porterville Recorder, Red Bluff Daily News, Redding Record Searchlight or the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

There are some 850 newspapers in California.

My aunt Carole reads the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the free weekly Good Times and both have published her letters.

My uncle Bill, who was among the original group of Silicon Valley nerds that started Hewlett-Packard, would find endless material for commentary and amusement in the Monterey Herald and Carmel Pine Cone, his local newspapers.

And while they may not pack the political punch they used to, those local newspapers are still strong voices in the state. And even though journalism has moved in many big papers to what I call armchair journalism, more dependent on press releases and tips than shoe leather and hustle, some of the small papers still practice the craft as it should be done.

At the beginning of March, our reporter in Monterey sent me an email with an editorial attached. “I figured you’d appreciate this fervent commentary by our stalwart local daily, without which I couldn’t possibly enjoy my morning coffee,” wrote Ward Lauren.

He had included an editorial from the Monterey County Herald.

That small, central coast newspaper was the first to sound the alarm on a fee pushed by the Administrative Office of the Courts, a fee that would in practice prevent reporters from looking through court records.

“A $10 fee would be devastating to newspapers and other news operations, especially relatively small ones such as The Herald. Newspapers this size review dozens of new court files each month in search of potential stories – many of them about important public business.”

“Most newspapers and TV stations in California would be forced to cut back significantly on their reporting of local matters,” said the paper, “meaning the public would receive much less information about ongoing court cases and newsworthy civil matters.”

Having been in the business, and seen the good and bad sides of it, I know that a reporter does not have a petty cash account from which to spend a hundred bucks looking at court files for a possible story. Even in flush times, but all the more so these days, the expense would first have to get OK’d by a news editor who generally would not approve an unbudgeted expense.

Instead, the reporter would be told to try to get the information some other way, whereupon both the editor and the reporter would move on to another story on the rapidly moving river of news.
The Monterey County Herald was early and right on a number of points.

The paper correctly identified the Administrative Office of the Courts as the source of the proposal.
News stories published later and in other newspapers said the fee was coming from Governor Brown’s financial department, but the governor’s people are simply going along with it. Without actually knowing what they are doing.

Asked about the search fee, the finance department lawyers talked about the need for consistency in online copy fees, a different beast altogether. Courts regularly charge varying amounts to provide copies of court documents, and they would be surprised to know the finance department believes they should consistently cap the copy fee at ten bucks.

The Monterey paper was also the first to correctly portray how the charge would work — as a ten dollar tax on every single file that is handed across the counter for a journalist to review. Most other news reports have described the charge as a $10-per-search fee, when in fact the fee amount is a multiple of ten depending on the number of files handed across the counter.

“It could be argued that newspapers, TV stations and the like are commercial enterprises that should pay their own way,” said the Monterey paper’s editorial.

“That, however, ignores the reality that legislatures and the highest courts have long recognized that the legal system functions best when the public enjoys meaningful access to court records, and that journalists are attempting to perform a public service much greater than simple retailing of mass data.”

The newspaper concluded, “The effect of the Administrative Office’s proposal would be to greatly reduce the scrutiny of the legal system while doing little to help with the financial crisis in the courts.”

After all the reporting Courthouse News has done on this issue since the Monterey County Herald published its editorial, I still could not have said it better.