Taxpayer money makes government records possible, so taxpayers have the right to see them.
This concept is at the core of our public-records laws, but the interpretation often varies depending on who is writing the rules.
Take, for example, the public records provisions in the California Rules of Court, which apply when you try to get information from state or local courts.
In many ways, the Rules of Court mirror the California Public Records Act, which you can use to get information from a broad range of state and local agencies.
Under both laws:
• You can see records in person or request them in electronic form.
• Agencies can withhold certain kinds of information that are deemed too sensitive to disclose.
• Agencies are supposed to respond to your request within 10 days, but they can ask for an extension.
• Agencies can charge you for the cost of the record as well as the time it takes to prepare it.
• You can sue the court if you believe you’ve been wrongfully denied access to information that should be public.
But as we’ve found with the California Public Records Act, the biggest problem with the courts’ public records laws is how they’re put into practice.
Rule 10.500 of the Rules of Court, for example, is supposed to be “broadly construed to further the public’s right of access” to court financial and administrative records, including annual budgets, employee salaries and contracts with outside vendors.
But public records advocates — and even judges — are up in arms about how some court managers have interpreted this phrase:
“Nothing in this rule requires a judicial branch entity to create a record or to compile or assemble data in response to a request for judicial administrative records if the judicial branch entity does not compile or assemble the data in the requested form for its own use or for provision to other agencies.”
Translation No. 1: If the court keeps information in a paper file, but you want it in electronic form, the court doesn’t have to put it into electronic form.
Translation No 2: Sometimes courts don’t keep records that should otherwise be public in paper form.
Kevin McCormick, a trial judge in Sacramento who also heads a court reform-advocacy group called the Alliance of California Judges, asked state court administrators earlier this year for copies of all their current contracts with vendors. He was surprised to hear that they did not have that information available.
The courts had literally interpreted Rule 10.500 to mean that they did not have to “create” a public record of their contracts — even at the request of a judge.
“Assuming for the sake of argument that is true,” the Alliance of California Judges mused in a public statement, “how does the second largest judicial system in the United States operate without a list of current contracts?”
The group characterized court administrators’ actions as “an assault on the public’s right to know how their hard-earned dollars are being spent.”
They added: “Everyone, including members of the media, should be concerned about the obfuscation and outright refusal by government officials to open their records to the light of day.”