By Fred Johnson and Susan Bassi
May 29, 2023
Vanessa Holton, California’s State Bar’s General Counsel, abruptly announced her retirement, shortly before the bar revealed a privacy breach that sent over 322,525 confidential attorney discipline records into the public domain. The records the bar inadvertently released were immediately picked up by various court and public record websites.
For much of 2022 the bar had to notify complainants, witnesses and responding attorneys whose names appeared in the released records that the state bar had released their confidential and private information.
Initially the bar’s Executive Director, Leah Wilson, claimed to take the bar’s data breach seriously. Later, the bar seemingly sought to shift blame to JudyRecords.com, a public records aggregator, that had published an estimated 260,000 discipline records and records from State Bar Court on their website after the bar improperly released the records, according to news reports.
JudyRecords.com was shuttered for an “investigation” that has taken over a year to conduct.
After a lengthy hiatus, JudyRecords.com was once again available over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, restoring public access to over 720 million court records.
During the same time the bar’s privacy breach was announced, Holton unlawfully produced records to the Vanguard under California’s Public Records Act (CPRA) that had been altered, concealing the content and date in which emails were exchanged between the now retired and disgraced Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Towery.
Hotlon’s actions, with respect to public records, required Vanguard reporters to retain an attorney after it was discovered Holton, or her agents, had altered and concealed the records.
Government Code section 6200, makes it a crime for any public employee or elected official to alter, conceal or destroy public records. There are no records to indicate Holton, or any state bar agent, was ever charged with a crime connected to violating this law.
Court records are considered public, however the way in which the public accesses these records is quite controversial, and often times mysterious.
At a federal level, court records can be obtained through Pacer.com, where the national debate about costs for records the public already paid to create rages on.
Federal courts also publish information for journalists as it relates to accessing court documents. A link to that information can be found here: Accessing Court Documents – Journalist’s Guide | United States Courts (uscourts.gov)
At a state level, access to records varies by county and can require physically going to courthouses and paying up to $1 per page for copies of court records.
Attorneys, however, are able to access these records remotely, 24 hours a day, and are not charged for downloading large volumes of public court records.
Court administrative records (lists of judges, staff policies, emails, attorney certification records) are available through a records request under California’s Rules of Court 10,500 and must me requested through the court’s media office or public information officer (PIO)
The following is an example of an administrative court record obtained from Santa Clara County Superior Court related to the certification and appointment of attorneys as minors counsel in family law cases.
This record tells the public that attorney Morris Bisted has been appointed to represent children in over 240 California family law matters for a divorce or custody matter.
It also appears to note that Morris Bisted has 10 to 15 active or pending appointments. The record is unclear if those cases are in addition to the 240.
Finally, the record tells the public that Mr. Bisted has had plus or minus 6 hours of education in order to certify that he is competent to accept these appointments.
Other resources for court-related records include:
Google Scholar, a legal search engine within Google’s public facing search engine, provides access to legal articles and appellate opinions. Case law is easily found on this site by searching causes of action or legal codes.
For example, if one wanted to find the law and information about sanctions and attorneys fees costs in California, searching Family Code section 271, 2030 and 2032 would bring up case law and relevant articles to assist with that research.
Lexis Nexis, unaffordable for most journalists and solo practitioners, this private resource is used by attorneys and large corporations to search case law, personal information on prospective litigants and witnesses, and by process servers and forensic investigators following money and persons of interest. The business also offers risk management products and services for complex investigations and discovery.
CaseText is also a private business that bills itself as an AI legal assistant for issues such as discovery. The website offers a free trial and then access is by paid subscription. Google searches also research free information the website provides as it relates to California law.
Newspaper articles are important for legal research and information. Stories that are published related to public corruption, street crime or scandals can lead to lawsuits or finding of witnesses information critical to prevail or defend in a lawsuit.
Recent business practices of private newspaper publishers including the San Jose Mercury News, New York Times, Washington Post, Orange County Register and Sacramento Bee, leave important periodicals locked away behind firewalls that require a subscription to review.
The Daily Journal, a legal publication that focuses on news primarily of interest to lawyers and judges, also maintains a firewall and copyright on published materials used by the legal profession. Public records show that courts and the state bar in California use public recourses to purchase subscriptions and advertising in this publication, but the public is not able to access that information without paying a fee or subscription.
Every county has a law libarary. These vastly underutilized resource provides access to every possible legal reference one might need to conduct legal research. Copy machines provide for copyrighted materials to be copied as well.
For example, judge profiles published by the Daily Journal provide access to information about public court judges, arbitrators, and private judges that includes cases they have heard, law firms they favor and the rules by which they govern court proceedings. These profiles also provide information about how judges like to operate their courtrooms.
Virtual references include LA Law Librarian who can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
California law prohibits the use of cameras and recordings in court proceedings without permission from the judge presiding over a case. Such permission is obtained by submitting a media request to the court’s public information officer, PIO, or media center, and being granted by the judge presiding over the proceedings.
If a judge denies the media request, a party or reporter who requested to record the public proceedings can be criminally prosecuted if they record the proceeding, even when broadcasted to the public domain via private business products such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom.
Without a granted media request, court proceedings are only formally documented by court transcripts prepared by a licensed court reporter. The court reporter holds the copyright on the prepared transcript until it is filed in the court, effectively breaking copyright protections. To obtain a copy of a court transcript that has not been filed in the court, a member of the public or press must privately pay a court reporter to obtain a copy of the transcript of a public proceeding.
This article was made possible by the Vanguard’s Jailhouse Journalist Project and is supported in digital format on YouTube and in Podcast Season One: Episode 1, coming soon.
Susan Bassi leads the Vanguard’s Jailhouse Journalist Project, a collaboration of reporters, editors, graphic designers, artists, filmmakers, photographers, citizen journalists and formerly incarcerated persons working to educate the public on issues related to California’s family and criminal courts. If you are interested in writing as a Jailhouse Journalist, would like to sponsor a Jailhouse Journalist, have information you would like investigated, or wish to donate and advertise to support this project, please contact Susan Bassi at SusanBassi@Protonmail.com or the Vanguard email@example.com