emailFrank P. Angel, a Santa Monica-based environmental law attorney, sent the following message to clients and colleagues this afternoon:

This morning the California Supreme Court heard arguments in Smith v. City of San Jose.  For all of us interested in freedom of access to governmental information and struggling to obtain public records from recalcitrant state and local public officials or agencies, thumbs up:

From the Justices’ questions and comments, it seems the Court will rule that under the California Constitution and the California Public Records Act, emails and text messages of public agency officials and staff, relating to the conduct of the public’s business, must be produced to public records requesters, even if these communications were sent or received through private email or messaging accounts.

This will be a big leap toward transparency as agency officials and staff will no longer be allowed to use private email or messaging accounts to hide from the public communications that concern the conduct of the people’s business, like communications about items on public agency agendas.

This case probably has been more closely watched than any other involving freedom of information issues in California in recent years. Officials’ use of their private email and texting accounts to send and receive officially significant but politically sensitive communications is thought to be widespread, and could become epidemic should the court declare such messages to be immune from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.

Apart from the policy issues, the case will also test the court’s respect for Proposition 59 of 2004, by which voters amended the state constitution to raise access to government records to the status of a fundamental right in California, and which holds that rules supporting public access to those records must be read broadly, and rules limiting access must be read narrowly.