Editorial: New court fee would crimp public access

Published: Friday, Mar. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 11:17 am

California's courts could use some more money. But squeezing the public and the press with fees that could limit access is the wrong way to go about it.

Unfortunately, Gov. Jerry Brown included a $10 search fee for court files in his budget blueprint after it was requested by the state Judicial Council.

Californians have had generally free access to criminal and civil court filings for decades. Under this proposal, the courts could charge the search fee for clerks to retrieve files sought by members of the public, businesses and reporters. Parties involved in the case would be exempt, and online searches would not be covered.

To make things worse, a related proposal would double the existing photocopying fee from 50 cents to $1 a page.

Critics rightly point out that the poor would be disproportionately affected by these higher fees. As the California Newspaper Publishers Association suggests, it's also not that difficult to imagine a chilling effect on journalists investigating stories of public interest. A reporter seeking a couple of dozen files would get billed a couple of hundred dollars, not counting any copying charge.

Fortunately, as The Bee's Jim Sanders reported Thursday, some key lawmakers are already questioning this bad idea. Sen. Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat who is chairwoman of a budget subcommittee studying the proposal, calls it another step on the slippery slope toward "a fee-for-justice system."

Court officials say the new fee, in part, would help them recoup the costs of time-consuming searches from commercial enterprises that request massive numbers of files, mine the data and sell the information.

But there's already a $15 fee for searches that take more than 10 minutes. If there is to be a fee hike, it makes much more sense to raise that charge than to burden the general public and the press.

Court and Brown administration officials also say the fees are a way to replenish court coffers without dipping into the state's strapped general fund. The court system has lost more than $1 billion in funding over the past five years and has had to close courtrooms, shorten hours and lay off workers.

Brown's office hasn't estimated how much the new search fee would generate, but it says the photocopying increase would raise nearly $6 million a year. That's a mere pittance in the $3.1 billion proposed budget in 2013-14 for the state's 58 trial courts, six appellate courts and state Supreme Court.

Besides, it's a matter of setting spending priorities. You would hope that preserving access to the courts would rank high on lawmakers' list.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was correct when she warned a joint session of the Legislature last week that "equal access to justice" can't be shortchanged.

This wrongheaded proposal does not help her cause.

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