Judicial Council Limits Document Access Over Media Protests

California’s Judicial Council has backtracked on making public records readily available, despite objections from a host of media organizations.  On Friday, the council adopted new rules for electronic filing and slipped into the new rules are terms that allow local court officials to delay release of documents until they are “officially filed,” meaning “processed and reviewed” by court workers, something that could take weeks, according to Courthousenews.com, one of the objectors to the rule changes.

The Los Angeles Times, California Newspaper Publishers Association and Bay Area News Group, the First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware, are a few of the organizations that opposed the change.

“The Judicial Council should not countenance the definitional sleight of hand when the public’s access to court records – a right that is fundamental to the transparency of the judicial branch of our government – is at issue,” said Rachel Matteo-Boehm, Roger Myers and Katherine Keating of Bryan Cave law firm, on behalf of the media groups.

The e-filing rule recognizes that electronically filed documents are public at the time it is filed, unless it is sealed.  But the new rule changes the definition of electronic filing to say, “This definition concerns the activity of filing and does not include the processing and review of the document and its entry into the court records, which are necessary for the document to be officially filed.”

Media groups expressed concern that the rule change would be used as an excuse to delay public access to newly filed actions and other public documents until staff approve them for public viewing.

More Access Issues

This decision comes on top of a series of movies by the California courts that would curtail news media access.

A recently defeated bill, proposed by the Judicial Council, would have tacked on a $10 fee for every file request made by a journalist and everyone not party to a case.  The move died after Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield criticized the court’s administration for wasteful spending.

Lawmakers added a requirement to the state budget bill that the Judicial Council and its committees open their meetings to the public.  The transparency push came in the wake of a years-long controversy over the Administrative Office of the Courts’ spending on a failed computer system and local courts’ loss of administrative control to a centralized AOC bureaucracy in San Francisco.

But Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the open meetings requirement last week after lobbying by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Judicial Council’s response, via Courthousenews.com