Bill Stripped, That Would Allow Better Access to Court Records

yolo_county_courthouseOne of the biggest barriers to timely court coverage is the unavailability of court files to members of the public or journalists, while hearings are in progress. 

This has proved to be a big hindrance to timely reporting.  What it means is that if one of our Court Watchers in the Yolo County courts sees a case of interest, we have to wait three or four days for the file to be moved from the courtroom where the case was heard back to the clerk’s office where we can peruse the files.

That means limited access to motions and other material during the course of hearings and preliminary hearings, and no access to additional information until at least three days after the end of a trial, perhaps longer.

It would actually be a pretty easy fix: you simply have a public set of files as well as the court’s set.

SB 326, sponsored by open government advocate Senator Leland Yee, was going to fix this problem.  According to language in the law, “Existing law requires the Judicial Council to adopt rules of court to establish the standards and guidelines for the creation, maintenance, reproduction, and preservation of court records, and requires that these standards and guidelines reflect industry standards for each medium used, ensure the accuracy and preserve the integrity of the records, and ensure that the public can access and reproduce the records.”

It continues, “Specifically, unless access is otherwise restricted by law, court records created, maintained, preserved, or reproduced under specified provisions are required to be made reasonably accessible to all members of the public for viewing and duplication, and electronic court records must be viewable at the court, whether or not they are accessible remotely. Additionally, rules of court require courts to provide public access to electronic records, as specified.”

What this bill would do is require “the Judicial Council to adopt a rule of court to require courts to provide  timely  public access to  case-initiating civil and criminal  court records, as defined.”

It continues, “The bill would require the rule to provide for newly filed or lodged case-initiating civil and criminal court records , upon request by a member of the public, to be made available for public inspection at the courthouse no later than the end of the day on which those records are received by the court.”

Sounds good.  Unfortunately, last week the bill got what an open-government advocacy group, CalAware, described as a “severe haircut” in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

“Instead of requiring the California Judicial Council  to adopt a rule requiring trial courts to provide press and public with day-one access to most new court filings in civil lawsuits and criminal cases,” CalAware reported on their blog, the bill may well be altered, “at the insistence of the Judicial Council, to allow an 18-month delay in adopting the rules, and even then applying them only to courts that have “fully implemented” the new computer-based Case Management System that has proven so costly and problem-ridden.”

CalWare blames this on Committee Chair Noreen Evans, who sits on the Judicial Council.  This reminds me of the flap about county salary augmentation for judges that the Judicial Council insisted needed to take 18 months to adopt.

CalAware makes reference to a mishandled computer project that was reported by State Auditor Elaine Howle back in January.

The state auditor reported that California court administrators “failed to properly plan for and realistically budget a massive computer modernization project that has fallen years behind schedule and on which the cost could balloon from the original estimate of $260 million to $1.9 billion.”

Thus, the auditor recommended they delay moving forward with the system until an independent reevaluation is conducted of potential problems with the California Court Case Management System (CCMS).

The office “has not analyzed whether the project would be a cost-beneficial solution to the superior courts’ technology needs and it is unclear on what information the AOC [Administrative Office of the Courts] made critical decisions during the project’s planning and development,” Ms. Howle wrote to Governor Jerry Brown.

The LA Times reported in February, “Envisioned as a way to modernize and tie together computer systems operated in the state’s 58 counties, the new system has been in trouble from the beginning, and some presiding judges have called on the administrative office and the Judicial Council of California to rethink the project.”

“The Judicial Council is largely in agreement with the recommendations and in many instances has already adopted practices and policies consistent with the recommendations made,” said William C. Vickrey, administrative director of the courts.

The bottom line is that we are unlikely to get the tools put into place that will improve our reporting.  This would have been a huge improvement for our court coverage, the ability to gain access to court files in a timely manner. 

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. E Roberts Musser

    I’m assuming the reason for the delay is essentially that the court’s new computer system is still a “work in progress” (to put it mildly)? Unless and until the computer system is installed and fully functional, there is really no practical way of getting records to the public by the end of each day of a trial?

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