Barely two weeks after the Legislature and Governor Jerry Brown abandoned a budgeting proposal to suspend a law requiring local government agencies to provide the public with access to their data in any computer format they keep it in, the California Supreme Court, in Sierra Club v. Superior Court of Orange County, has unanimously interpreted that law to apply to information formatted for geographic information systems (GIS). As reported by Courthouse News Service,
The Sierra Club had lodged a California Public Records Act request in 2007 to look at basic information on boundaries, parcel numbers and street addresses in Orange (County) as part of an effort to protect public land from property developers.
GIS base maps could raise public awareness about protected open spaces in Orange County, as well as areas threatened by real estate development, the environmental group said.
Journalists, the media, scientists and pubic interest groups use GIS base maps to look at data by creating layered digital maps, a feature not available in other file formats, according to the brief from Sierra Club’s supporters.
The Orange County database of mapping data includes information on 640,000 parcels of land.
Citing a software exception under the Public Records Act, Orange offered the Sierra Club the records as pdfs, but said the group would have to pay a licensing fee if it wanted the records in GIS-formatted files.
The Sierra Club sought a state court order compelling Orange to only charge a copying fee for GIS records, but the trial court sided with the county, and an appellate panel affirmed.
In a unanimous reversal Monday, the Supreme Court found that, while the GIS mapping software is exempt from the Public Records Act, the county’s GIS database is not.
Beyond and at least as important as the specific benefit for those increasingly using governmental GIS data for a wide array of analytical purposes is the court’s dispositive application of the state constitutional amendment added by the voters in 2004 and best known as Proposition 59. After close examination of several key technical terms as used in various statutes and a careful sifting of lawmakers’ intent as shown in the legislative history of several relevant provisions, the court found arguments for public access to GIS data more compelling, but looked to Proposition 59’s rule of interpretation to confirm its conclusion.
Any remaining doubt about the proper interpretation of section 6254.9 in this case is dispelled by the interpretive rule in article I, section 3, subdivision (b)(2), of the California Constitution: “A statute, court rule, or other authority, including those in effect on the effective date of this subdivision, shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people’s right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access.”
To the extent that the term “computer mapping system” is ambiguous, the constitutional canon requires us to interpret it in a way that maximizes the public’s access to information “ ‘unless the Legislature has expressly provided to the contrary.’ ” (Office of Inspector General v. Superior Court, supra, 189 Cal.App.4th at p. 709.) As explained above, we find nothing in the text, statutory context, or legislative history of the term “computer mapping system” that allows us to say the Legislature clearly sought to exclude GIS-formatted parcel data from the definition of a public record when it can be disclosed without any accompanying software.
Applying the interpretive rule set forth in article I, section 3, subdivision (b)(2), we must conclude that section 6254.9(b)’s exclusion of “computer mapping systems” from the definition of a public record does not encompass a parcel database in a GIS file format. Contrary to what the County contends, this reading of the statute does not “repeal or nullify” a “statutory exception to the right of access to public records” in contravention of article I, section 3, subdivision (b)(5). Our holding simply construes the terms of section 6254.9 in light of the constitutional mandate that a statute “shall be . . . narrowly construed if it limits the right of access.” (Cal. Const., art. I, § 3, subd. (b)(2).)