Click photo to enlarge
Gov. Jerry Brown is shown here speaking at a press conference at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif. on Tuesday, January 15, 2013. (Gary Reyes/ Staff)

Courts are the forgotten branch of government. Until they need money.

Gov. Jerry Brown proposed budget includes plans to end one of the cornerstones of government access to public records -- the ability to walk into a courthouse and look at a file without paying a fee.

It's the court system's equivalent to the Public Records Act's requirement that government documents be available for inspection at no charge.

But Brown and court administrators want to impose a $10 fee just to look at a court file. The charge wouldn't apply to people looking up their own records.

The rest of us? We might need bigger checkbooks.

The journalism community is yelling about the proposal, as it should. But we aren't alone in using court files for research. Social scientists do it. So do advocates, law students, lawyers, private investigators, others.

I admit it. I use court files all the time. And a lot of them, especially criminal cases, aren't online. They can only be seen at a courthouse.

It works like this:

Person giving a clerk a case number: "I'd like to see this file, please."

Clerk: "Be right back."

Keeping order to huge numbers of files isn't easy, and no clerk wants to have to tell a judge they can't find a file. Their work is important. But walking to a shelf and carrying some papers back isn't worth $10 a pop.

On top of the fee, court administrators also want to double the copying costs, too, from 50 cents a page to $1.

It's simply the government attempting to raise money through the public's basic right of access. And it's where a line needs to be drawn.

Brown, in all of his incarnations, has never been a champion of government access and transparency. Not as governor, not as attorney general, not as Oakland mayor.

So it's not really a surprise that his administration supports this idea. But Brown -- governor moonbeam, Mr. Big Idea, is thinking very small here.

Scoff if you will, but none of us want to live in a society where the courts operate in secrecy -- especially in criminal courts where judges have the ability to take away a person's freedom.

And in effect, that's what the fee will do -- make the courts more secret. Inevitably, fewer files will be examined, less research performed, a smaller amount of knowledge learned.

If the courts get this -- and Brown's revised budget is still weeks away -- how long will it take until the administrative branch of government wants it too?

Fees to retrieve routine documents under the Public Records Act?

It isn't as far-fetched as it might sound. I file hundreds of them a year, sometimes more than 1,000. And some of the responses I get include demands of illegal fees to look up information. I've even seen little governments try to tack on "administrative fees" -- surcharges -- for access to public records.

If the courts get this, city halls are going to want it next.

Not that the courts don't need money -- they do. Staffs have been cut and office hours and services reduced all over the state. The courts have lost $1.2 billion in state funder during the past four years. It hasn't helped that the courts blew through millions of dollars a few years ago trying to create a centralized records system that failed miserably.

There's no easy way out of the court's funding problem. But new access and doubled copy fees aren't going to fix it.

They're just going to make California's courts all the more remote.

Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches a class on public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Reach him at tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow him at Twitter.com/Thomas_Peele.