February 1, 2023
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Editorial: California wisely shelves pay-to-view court fee


Balancing California’s budget on the back of the First Amendment is a terrible idea.

That’s why it was heartening to read that committees of both the General Assembly and the Senate have shelved an amendment that would have tacked a fee of $10 per record onto requests for access to public record files.

The issue of forcing the public to pay for public records burst into the spotlight last month when the Administrative Office of the Courts sought to add the fee as an amendment to a trailer bill that covers a host of budget issues and usually gets through without much scrutiny.

The amendment would have deprived the public of the free access it enjoys to see a host of court filings including new businesses, lawsuits and other civil filings. The court system, badly strapped for cash in the wake of California’s budget cuts, said it needed to resort to the public records fee in order to balance its budget.  The records fee would have applied to both members of the public and to journalists and could have added thousands of dollars a year to what are routine news-gathering efforts by members of the press.

A number of organizations, including the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, government watchdogs, open government advocates and labor unions stepped up to oppose it. We’re particularly proud of the leadership role played by CNPA’s 2013 President, Cynthia Schur, publisher of the Santa Maria Times and Lee Central Coast Newspapers. CNPA has been at the forefront of media organizations’ efforts to kill the amendment and so far it has been very successful.

Unfortunately, the battle isn’t over yet. While the amendments have been pulled from both the Assembly and the Senate, the court administrator could get a second chance to reintroduce the issue of a court records fee after Gov. Jerry Brown submits his May budget update next month.

We’re willing to accept the fact that the court records fee has become one of this year’s pawns in the game of budget poker that gets played in Sacramento in these budget-stressed times. But putting the public’s right to know at risk to fix problems that have absolutely nothing to do with the First Amendment shows just how screwed up the state’s priorities have become.  While our leaders are gallivanting around China on a junket seeking funding for their increasingly fanciful bullet train, a serious effort has been made to force every court visitor and all of our journalism organizations to pay twice for the same records.

We’ll repeat what we said earlier — balancing the budget of California’s court system on the back of the First Amendment is a threat to our democracy. That’s probably something they don’t understand in Beijing but the fact that the issue has been raised in Sacramento is shameful indeed.