Alameda County
Bar Association

Controversy Over the Public Records Fee 

Have you heard about Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal for the 2013-14 budget to require that all California courts charge a $10 “search fee” for clerks to retrieve files for journalists, businesses, and members of the public, and their attorneys, seeking public records?  State law currently only allows courts to charge a $15 “search fee” if it takes a clerk more than 10 minutes to complete. The proposed fee would exclude parties involved in the case requested and would only apply to manual searches in California courthouses. The existing fee for photocopying a court file would double from .50 cents to $1 per page. Governor Brown’s office has yet to release an estimate of the sums likely to be raised by its proposed $10-per-file fee for searches, but doubling photocopying charges is expected to generate nearly $6 million annually.

How do you think this change will affect your practice and your clients? Proponents for the higher court fees believe it will bolster revenue and efficiency. Moreover, they assert that it would allow an across-the-board fee of $10 to be charged regardless of how long a search takes eliminating the notion of timing each search. It could help courts better recover costs of complying with requests for massive numbers of files by commercial firms or “data miners” that compile and sell such information. Opponents say the proposal would unduly burden lower income citizens, signal a lack of government transparency, and discourage legitimate research by journalists, lawyers, businesses, and members of the public. Since current state law allows a $15 charge for time-consuming searches, an adequate mechanism for targeting and discouraging “data miners” and other businesses that request large volumes of court information is already in place.  “It’s another step in making a fee-for-justice system,” State Senator Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat who chairs a budget subcommittee reviewing the proposal, told the Sacramento Bee. Overall, the proposed search fee and photocopying fee increase could generate revenue for the courts at the expense of your clients’ and your right to seek and access public information without an undue cost.

Dan Walters, a columnist for the Sacramento Bee, told my office, “Were this a stand-alone bill, I would say its chances are scant. But since it’s part of the budget, and backed both by the administration and the court system, making book on its chances become more problematic, since it’s a way for the Legislature to provide more money to courts, at least on paper, without having to find that money somewhere else in the budget.” The state budget will be revised in  mid-May, so this proposal’s future remains unclear now. Consider contacting your legislative  representatives in Sacramento to share your views on this proposal and inform the ACBA Board of Directors what you wish its members to do.

–John McDougall

John McDougallJohn McDougall is a criminal defense lawyer in Berkley.  He is a longtime member of the ACBA and the Court Appointed Attorneys Program panel.  He received his B.A. from Columbia and his J.D. from Cornell.  In 1995 the State Bar Board of Legal Specialization recognized John as a Certified Criminal Law Specialist, which he remains to this day. His practice consists entirely of defense of criminal cases.