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Newspaper gains access to court financial records

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Newspaper gains access to court financial records

  • A state appellate court said that county-maintained documents are public under the state open records act.

June 2, 2003 — Court financial records managed by county governments are subject to the same laws as other public records, a California appellate court ruled Tuesday.

The decision of the appeals court in Sacramento will allow the Sacramento Valley Mirror, a semiweekly newspaper in Artois, to access court financial records. Tim Crews, the newspaper’s editor and publisher, asked Glenn County officials to disclose the information, but they denied his request.

Tuesday’s ruling affects all California counties that assume court bookkeeping responsibilities, said Duffy Carolan, attorney for Crews. She estimates that a majority of counties, especially those in smaller, more rural areas, work under this system.

Generally, court financial records are not covered by the California Public Records Act, which requires state and local agencies to make all public records they maintain available for inspection. Access to court financial records is governed by the California Rules of Court. Under these rules, a court need disclose only limited information. Because the records in question were maintained by the county and not by the court itself, they are subject to the CPRA, the court determined.

Applying the CPRA to court financial records provides an avenue for accessing more detailed information, Carolan said.

Carolan said she hopes the ruling encourages courts to amend their rules to allow for greater access to documents. In Tuesday’s decision, the court stated that “far from closing the door to public access to court budgetary and financial information, [the state rule of court] was designed to keep it open. Precisely because courts are exempt from the CPRA, the Legislature took remedial steps to ensure public accountability with respect to the management of court finances.”

Concerned that the court may have been spending funds improperly, Crews sought access about a year ago to employee cell phone records and court financial documents. The county denied his requests. A trial court later required the county to turn over the phone records, but not the financial records. The case decided on Tuesday was an appeal to the earlier decision.

Crews said Tuesday’s decision “should make journalists aware of the fact that they do have access to these documents and that they’re worth looking at.” He said he hopes that the court will publish its decision to give it greater force.

According to an Associated Press report, Glenn County is changing its records system in response to the ruling. The court’s contract with the county terminates June 30. After this date, the county will no longer possess or maintain court records.

(Crews v. Superior Court; Media Counsel: Duffy Carolan, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, San Francisco) EH


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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