Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Media access to court documents: Priceless

Published: Sunday, Jun. 2, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 - 11:02 am

The front-page story about the woman behind a proposed $2.8 billion film studio in Dixon shows why it matters if access to court documents in California becomes more expensive.

Marjie Lundstrom and Sam Stanton collected roughly 750 pages of court records to document Carissa Carpenter's trail of failed projects and troubled finances. The two reporters also obtained several hundred pages of liens and abstracts of judgments from various county recorder offices.

The documents offer an important – and concerning – perspective on Carpenter's past financial dealings and unsuccessful studio proposals. All came with per-page copy costs.

Under Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget, the cost to photocopy one page of a file would double from 50 cents to $1 to raise an estimated $5.9 million. In addition, Brown would authorize courts to charge a $10 "search fee" when clerks retrieve a requested file.

It's true that California courts need a more firm financial foothold. Yet public documents need to be accessible to the public and the media, which are more often the public's source of information than an original document.

Fortunately, committees in both the state Assembly and the Senate have voted to change Brown's proposal. An Assembly budget subcommittee rejected both proposals, to add a search fee and to double the copy costs.

In the Senate, the budget subcommittee voted to exempt the media from the proposed search fee but kept the proposal to double per-page copy costs.

That disagreement means the conference committee will work out the differences.

H.D. Palmer, state Finance Department spokesman, said in an email to The Bee's Jim Sanders that the state Administrative Office of the Courts contends "this proposed change would not have a bearing on the relationship courts have with the media.

"If the courts weren't charging the news before the enactment of this provision, they believe if the provision becomes law it will not result in a change to this behavior."

That might well be the case with a court reporter who is on good terms with court officials and regularly gets access to necessary documents for no charge.

But that situation doesn't apply to every journalist – or to the public. Lundstrom and Stanton paid for every document, finding that courts around the state charged varying prices.

Despite the cost, the courts were helpful: "I have to say that the lead clerk in Placer County civil court was especially helpful in getting us our documents quickly, and the operations director overseeing small claims court in Sacramento dug stuff out of deep storage, too, so that we could get copies of the actual documents," Lundstrom said.

Access shouldn't depend on good relationships, though, because sometimes journalists report stories that are not popular with those in power.

Part of the Brown proposal is aimed at the cost of employee time. Current law requires a $15 fee for record search requests that take more than 10 minutes to provide. According to an Assembly analysis, the law typically is interpreted to mean 10 minutes for any single record, so if you make several requests the total might take far more time, with no charge.

The proposed law would charge $10 for every request, regardless of time, unless the person who wants the record is a party to the case.

Andy Furillo covers Sacramento Superior Court for The Bee. "This will have a very bad impact on poor people in the public and hurt them way more than it would us. So, of course they should exempt us, but they ought to exempt everybody else while they're at it," he said.

The Assembly already understands that. Now it's time for the Senate to step up.

Reach Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar at (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/terhaar.

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