PUBLIC INFORMATION — The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is recommending a set of rules that for the first time both provide and limit access to the "back office" administrative and business records of the state's courts and of the AOC headquarters itself—everything but civil and criminal case files, which are already presumed to be public. The California Judicial Council is set to adopt the rules at its meeting next Tuesday, with an effective date of January 1.  As previously conceded here, the fact of this general transparency initiative is highly praiseworthy—perhaps unique among court systems in the nation.  But some of the most potentially significant records will remain secret.

The proposed rules are by and large borowed—sometimes with substantial modifications—from the law providing public access to records of the executive branch of state government and of local government agencies: the California Public Records Act (CPRA). Many of the differences showing up in an earlier draft of the proposed rules have been analyzed here in a series of comments between October 12 and 16.

The following comments in reaction to the final proposals will be most understandable to those who have followed development of the rules and/or who are familiar with the CPRA, but suffice it to say that compared with the CPRA, which operates on state and local government, these rules operating on state and local courts and the AOC will provide:

  • the same access to draft documents as such;
  • the same access to records of what individual employees and judges are paid; and
  • much the same rules on the process of seeking access to records.

But compared with the CPRA, less access is likely concerning:

  • how administrative and executive decisions are made—who influences them and how;
  • the misappropriation of public resources for personal activities "such as personal notes, memoranda, electronic mail, calendar entries, and records of Internet use";
  • any kind of correspondence within the court system or to or from the outside;
  • complaints and investigations of misconduct alleged against judges and other court officers, and any discipline imposed; and
  • information submitted by contractors in response to requests for proposals.

Other higher barriers to access include greater charges for copies of records, and even for inspection.  Under one alternative to be selected by the Judicial Council, fees could reflect not only duplication but also the cost of search, retrieval from remote facilities, review to check for exemptions, and redaction to remove exempt information.  Those requesting access for commercial purposes (but not news media) would be charged a premium. Under the other option, fees for access to their own records could be set in future public proceedings by the various courts and the AOC.

As for computer-stored information, request for a document created in Microsoft Word, for example, would apparently be fulfilled by a PDF version to prevent access to buried metadata showing the document's history, routing, contributors, etc.

For those interested in listening to the Judicial Council's reaction to the proposed rules, the AOC advises that next Tuesday's meeting "starts at 8:30 a.m., at which time you should be able to listen to a live broadcast of the proceedings by going to the following webpage and scrolling down to the December 15 meeting area towards the bottom of the page and clicking on the audiocast link: The public access item is scheduled to be taken up by the council at 10:40 a.m."