PUBLIC INFORMATION — For the first time, California's judicial branch is set to adopt a comprehensive set of rules on public access to its administrative records, including but not limited to those showing how the courts obtain and spend their money.  Today we provide general background for the four segments of proposed Rules of Court 10.500 and 10.501 that we will examine here in the next few days. The proposals are open to public comment through October 29 and will be adopted as court rules in some form by the California Judicial Council, to be effective January 1.

Top 10 Points to Bear in Mind about the Proposed Rule

1. Rules of Court are adopted by the California Judicial Council to govern the judicial branch in terms of policies, requirements, standards and procedures to be followed by the trial and appellate courts and the parties trying cases before them, and assigning roles and relationships among the court domains and the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) in San Francisco.

2. Proposed Rule 10.500 provides access to information about, and held by, each of the trial and appellate courts and their particular administrative functions as well as information concerning and held by the AOC.  

3. Proposed Rule 10.500 does not govern access to records created or acquired by the courts in the trials or appeals of particular cases.  That access is determined by the federal and state constitutions, statutes enacted by the Legislature, and common law decisions, which by and large do not address access to court administrative records.

4. Proposed Rule 10.500 fills a large gap left by the California Public Records Act, which from its enactment 41 years ago has expressly exempted all judicial branch agencies from its coverage.

5. Proposed Rules 10.500 and 10.501 (records retention) are the result of pressure by organized court employees for financial data relevant to labor-management bargaining.  The Rule will replace the current Rule 10.802, which provides more narrowly for "maintenance of and public access to budget and management information" that could be relevant to bargaining.  That rule was adopted in response to a legislative mandate several years ago.

6. Proposed Rules 10.500 and 10.501 are not the result of media pressure.  Although Californians Aware, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the First Amendment Coalition (along with legislative staff representatives and court union leaders) were last month given an early look at the original rough draft of the rules—as a kind of "focus group" to detect any major problems and objections—no press organization lobbied for the rules, or was even aware they were in the works until the legislative mandate for their adoption showed up in a court budget trailer bill in mid-summer.

7. The mainstream media have not spent much time seeking records of court administration.  A rare exception is a small rural newspaper which, despite the scarcity of affirmative law, sued its superior court twice for such information—and won both times.  Disclosure: Editor-publisher Tim Crews sits on the Californians Aware board of directors.

8. In large part, proposed Rule 10.500 borrows from the provisions of the California Public Records Act. In some cases, it even improves on those rules, as will be seen in the next four installments.

9. In other instances, the proposed rule provides less assurance of disclosure, or sets higher cost barriers, as will be seen.

10. The greatest unknown is whether or to what degree records showing the politics behind the policy-making will be accessible, or will be withheld based on any of several exemptions in the proposed rule.  For example, a reporter or taxpayer in Los Angeles County might submit a request to the Superior Court Executive Committee for minutes of its own meetings or those of any standing committees concerning the Sturgeon case (see Dan Walters column) or a legislative cure for the problem it raised.  As Walters put it,

One wonders how Los Angeles County's taxpayers would have reacted had they known that the Legislature was approving extra judicial payments while the county's supervisors are staring at a $200 million budget deficit and contemplating steep cuts in services, especially those to the poor and unemployed, in a county with a jobless rate of nearly 11 percent.

This point too will be examined here in coming days.