California's court administrators are trying to raise money at the expense of public access.

It's wrong, and it will only continue to sour the public on the state's most secretive branch of government.

Alameda County Superior Court is now charging extraordinarily high fees for online access to civil courts records. Its new policy has caused uproars and even a Change.Org petition asking to get those fees rolled back: http://bit.ly/1ojcsrR.

(It is troubling, though, that whoever started the petition chose to remain anonymous, calling themselves only "a concerned lawyer." Courage of conviction matters.)

Other California courts -- Sacramento, Riverside, San Diego for example are also charging to look at files online. Los Angeles has charged for electronic access for years at rates even higher than what Alameda has undertaken. You can expect other courts to jump on this.

There's no question that California's courts are in a fiscal crisis. But the answer lies in Gov. Jerry Brown providing more funding now that state coffers are swelling again, not effectively cutting off access to court records for people who can't afford them and trampling First Amendment rights of access.

Alameda now charges $1 to search for a case, then $1 a page for the first five pages of each document in a case, a fee that drops to 50 cents after that and maxes out at $40 per document. It does not allow the public to select specific pages of a document.


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Yes, I write this as someone who depends on court records to do a great deal of my work as an investigative journalist. But reporters are not alone in this. Nonprofits who help the indigent, academic researchers, law students, gadflies and others seek court records, too.

What about the poor person who needs a copy of their divorce file or a restraining order? The cost of copies could well be prohibitive. To some people, $40 remains a lot of money.

Alameda seems like a special case. It's had a terrible online system for some civil records for more than a decade -- one so bad it didn't allow searches for cases, requiring people to first go to the courthouse to look up case numbers. Then it required each page of a document to be opened individually.

When the court's top bureaucrat, Leah T. Wilson, a former Berkeley school board member and political climber, called a public meeting last month to discuss the fees -- after they were already in place -- she had the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights look as criticism was heaped upon her. Yet she seemed to dismiss it.

The clear impression that Wilson's after-the-fact meeting created is one that it was simply a going-through-the-motions exercise that will change nothing.

While Wilson's hot to make money from access, she's lax about other things. State Bar records show that she was suspended from practicing law last year for failing to pay annual Bar dues. She remains ineligible to work as an attorney, according to the Bar.

Unlike agencies where access to records is governed under the Public Records Act, courts are free to make money through transparency. The fairly standard fee of 50 cents per page for paper copies is already too much. Making this worse is that many court workers won't make copies the day they are requested, necessitating two trips to the courthouse.

The issue, of course, is that the records already belong to the public and are generated through the use tax dollars. But when you want to see them online or get a copy of what you, effectively, already own, you're slammed with what might as well be another tax.

California's archipelago of superior courts has historically been a mess -- 58 fiefdoms. Although the state long ago assumed jurisdiction of the system, the counties still retain some control, creating a deep sense of parochialism.

Even in populous and liberal Alameda County, if you go sit in a criminal courtroom you can expect a bailiff -- and sometimes even lawyers involved in a case -- to demand to know why you are there, as if you have entered a private sanctum. It's nothing but pure intimidation.

So, too, is the court's new fee structure: Pay up or scram.

Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is also co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, N. California Chapter, Freedom of Information Committee. Reach him at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at @ thomas_peele.