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Fee proposed for viewing court files

(From the Palo Alto Daily Post) The administrators of California’s courts have proposed a bill that would impose a $10 fee on every court file requested by any journalist or member of the public — a fee that critics say would limit access to public documents and deprive the public of news.

“It’s fundamentally unfair to help finance the courts on the backs of the public, which has already paid for this information to be categorized and collected,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

Ewert said reporters assigned to the legal beat look at many files daily, perhaps up to 50 files a day in larger counties. Adding a fee would be cost prohibitive for many news organizations and reduce the amount of news the public gets, he said.

“Most people … rely on newspaper reporting to see what’s happening in the court system. The public is going to be deprived,” Ewert said.

Ewert said he’s been at the state capitol this week, trying to persuade the lobbyist for court administrators to drop the fee.

Ewert said the language in the bill is unclear about whether the fee would be applied to files obtained online.

Ted Glasser, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate Program in Journalism, called the proposal “nothing less than outrageous.”

“That’s just plain stupid and undemocratic,” he said.

Glasser said freelancers and small newspapers especially would feel the burden of the fee, having to pick and chose whether a case is worth viewing. He said not only would journalists be affected, but the public in general.

“I think the state should be going in the opposite direction, with more online so that people have easier access to information. You don’t want people calculating costs in trying to figure out the government,” Glasser said.

The $10 per file fee was one of 17 proposals the state Judicial Council made to deal with $1 billion in budget cuts, said the council’s spokesman, Peter Allen.

He said Gov. Jerry Brown has decided to pursue 11 of the 17 proposals, including the $10 fee. The $10 fee would generate about $6 million a year, Allen said.
A Senate budget subcommittee reviewed some of the proposals Thursday, and Steven Jahr, a retired Redding judge who is now administrative director of the state courts, told the committee he didn’t like the fee, but felt it was necessary.

“It’s not a healthy fee,” Jahr admitted in an interview with the Post.
He said it’s a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” situation since funding for the courts continues to be reduced.

“We have to seek something that would keep the courthouses open. It’s for that reason alone that we’re supporting these fees,” he said.

The fee and the other proposals will be part of what’s called a “trailer bill,” which will be heard concurrently when the Legislature takes up the state budget.

Aram James of Palo Alto, a retired Santa Clara County public defender, told the Post that the profound budget crisis in the judicial branch is making public access to the courts much more difficult.

“Any additional cost we put on a citizen to look at court files is one more obstacle in obtaining justice,” James said.

He said the quality of justice will be stretched thin as the courts close down earlier or begin charging to view files. He said he imagines small “mom and pop” newspapers that already struggle with their own budgets will be greatly affected by the potential fees.

Attorney Terry Francke, the founder of CalAware, an open government advocacy organization, said the fee was intolerable and he believes it won’t stand. He said the fee is a life-or-death issue for news gathering, and makes “covering news in any kind of depth impossible.”

“You can’t make gathering news for public record prohibitively expensive,” Francke said.

The bill says the courts would not charge people see a case in which they are a party.

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