State budget proposal would charge 'search fee' for court documents

Published: Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 - 11:28 am

Californians have a legal right to view court files of criminal and civil cases, but here's the catch: It soon may cost $10.

Decades of providing free access to court public records would end under Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed state budget.

Courts would be authorized to charge a $10 "search fee" for clerks to retrieve files for journalists, businesses and members of the public, excluding parties involved in the case requested.

The proposal comes after years of cuts to California court funding, totaling more than $1 billion over the past five years, according to the California Judicial Council.

Brown's budget also would double an existing fee for photocopying a court file – from 50 cents to $1 per page.

"The use of fees and redirecting resources have been ways we've been able to keep the trial courts' operating budget stable, while other areas of the budget have seen substantial reductions as a result of the recession," said H.D. Palmer, Finance Department spokesman.

Opponents of higher court fees said they would unduly impact low-income citizens, signal a lack of government transparency, and discourage legitimate research by journalists.

"It's another step in making a fee-for-justice system," said Sen. Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat who chairs a budget subcommittee reviewing the search fee proposal.

California's 58 trial courts, six appellate courts and its state Supreme Court deserve adequate funding without hiking fees, she said.

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the $10-per-file search fee would be a "significant impediment" to news gathering.

Newspaper reporters research numerous cases of significance to their community – and someone requesting 15 court files would be stuck with a $150 search fee, Ewert noted.

"It sends a pretty strong message that you, as a member of the public, can have access as long as you're willing to pay for it," he said. "And that's dangerous."

State law currently allows courts to charge a $15 "search fee" only if it takes a clerk more than 10 minutes to complete.

Brown's proposal would allow $10 to be charged regardless how long a search takes. It would apply to each "name, file or other information for which a search is requested."

The new proposal would eliminate the notion of timing each search, and it could help courts better recover costs of complying with requests for massive numbers of files by commercial firms that compile and sell such information, officials said.

Ewert countered that current state law, allowing a $15 charge for time-consuming searches, provides an adequate mechanism for targeting "data miners" and other businesses that request large volumes of court information.

"Transparency is a value, not a product to sell," said Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee. "We reluctantly approved fee increases last year and will apply great scrutiny to all new fee proposals in our courts this year."

Brown's search fee proposal would apply only to manual searches in California courthouses.

State law does not address fees that can be charged for online provision of court documents – and policies vary from county to county.

Sacramento County does not charge for online document retrieval, for example, while Los Angeles County charges nearly $5 for a name search to identify which documents are available, then $7.50 to download a file of 10 pages or less.

Brown's office has not released an estimate of the sums likely to be raised by its proposed $10-per-file fee for manual searches. The companion fee, doubling photocopying charges, is expected to generate nearly $6 million annually.

The state Judicial Council asked Brown to include the proposed fee in his 2013-14 budget. That measure, along with the higher photocopying charge, were among 17 recommendations by a judicial working group to bolster revenue and efficiency.

Steven Jahr, administrative director of state courts, said higher court fees could have the unintended consequence of creating barriers to public access. But courts have little choice, given massive budget cuts in recent years, he said.

"A starving man will eat rotten food before he will starve," Jahr said of the decision to seek higher fees as a last resort.

The Judicial Council hopes Brown will switch gears and bolster court coffers through the state's general fund.

"If it benefits the entire public, then it's the entire public that obviously should be supporting the system," Jahr said.

Call Jim Sanders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @jwsanders55.

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