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The Press Club's Opinion: Public access in jeopardy with proposed court fee

The following op-ed appeared in several newspapers this morning including the San Francisco Examiner, the Daily Journal in San Mateo and the Daily Post in Palo Alto.

By Dave Price and Marshall Wilson

Decades of free access to public court files would end under a proposal in Gov. Jerry Brown’s preliminary budget.

We write this on behalf of the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club Board of Directors, which strongly opposes the proposal. But why should you?

Because free access to public records is a cornerstone of our democracy. Free access to public records makes it more difficult for those doing wrong to hide.

The proposal in the state budget would authorize courts to charge a $10 “search fee” for files requested by journalists, businesses and members of the public. It would exclude parties involved in the cases requested.

The budget would also double the fee for photocopying a court file from 50 cents to $1 a page.
The fees were among numerous revenue-generating proposals made by state court administrators who have been forced to cut $1 billion in costs over the past five years. They have had to fire employees, shorten hours and delay courthouse construction projects due to these budget cuts, so it is understandable that they would seek new sources of revenue.

But the courts should not seek to close their budget gap by charging for public record searches. That would be a major step backward in transparency and set barriers to information people need in a free and democratic society.

A search fee would limit access to low-income citizens and nonprofit advocacy groups, and discourage legitimate research by journalists of issues that are of concern to the communities they serve.
A newspaper reporter on the legal beat might review 50 files in a day. At $10 a file, that would cost the newspaper $500 a day — or $130,000 a year. Few newspapers, not even the largest ones, could afford such a daily expense.

Reporters would be forced to review fewer cases, reducing the news the public would get from the media.

Small mom-and-pop community newspapers and independent online scribes would be priced out of covering the courts.

What is the cost to society?

Plenty. Think of how many stories you have read that have exposed wrongdoing by individuals, corporations or government agencies that include the line, “court records reveal.”

It’s in court records that journalists find information that informs the public and infuriates everyone from CEOs to officials of all stripes.

This fee would hit businesses, too. When conducting background checks for lenders, employers and landlords, researchers search court records for debt, eviction, criminal and probate records.

The $10-per-file fee would hinder nonprofit advocacy groups who might want to research the legal history of a land developer or industrial polluter, for instance.

In 2013, you’d think that all court records would be online, and that access to files would be a mouse click away. But the state Judicial Council, the entity that proposed this $10 fee to Gov. Brown, last year abandoned a computer system to store case files online after costs had ballooned out of control.

The Judicial Council blew a half-billion dollars on that project — more than offsetting the “search fee” it now wants to collect.

America’s courts have a long tradition of open access rooted in the Sixth Amendment, which says all citizens are entitled to a “public trial.” The framers of the constitution wanted public access to the courts to provide a check on excesses in the legal system.

This approach to solving the courts’ financial problems ignores the public’s role in monitoring the administration of justice.

The documents held by the courts are considered to be public documents, meaning they don’t belong to the court. They belong to the public.

The public shouldn’t be asked to pay twice for access to their documents.

The San Francisco Peninsula Press Club strongly supports more funding for the courts, but asks the governor and the Legislature to reject this wrongheaded fee that would limit the public’s right to know. We encourage you to do the same.

Dave Price is a member of the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club Board of Directors and Marshall Wilson is club President. They wrote this on behalf of the board. The San Francisco Peninsula Press Club is a professional journalism organization representing the greater Bay Area. Members are reporters, editors, photographers and public relations professionals.

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