Trials and tribulations: State wants to charge $10 fee for public to view court files

New proposal is included in a bill from the Judicial Branch

A recent proposal from California's Judicial Branch gives a whole new meaning to the term 'trials and tribulations'. In this case, the tribulations do not come at the expense of defendants or the accused but on journalists and members of the public.

Court officials in search of cash have suggested charging a $10 fee to view a single court file. The proposal, as reported by the Courthouse News Service, is part of Governor Jerry Brown's budget and was tucked away in a trailer bill sent to the Governor.

According to a memo entitled "List of Efficiencies that Department of Finance intends to include in Trailer Bill Language for fiscal year 2013-14," the current law that charges "data miners" who take more that ten minutes of a court clerk's time a $15 fee is not working.

"Courts have noted for the last several years that allowing the fee only for searches requiring more than 10 minutes has proven troublesome in practice. It is common practice for data miners and others to request a large number of files at once. Can the court charge at all, for example, if each file takes less than 10 minutes to retrieve? Is the court’s time being properly compensated if the court may only assess one $15 fee when the requester is asking for 50 or more files? These questions have caused considerable confusion. This proposal would clearly address those questions and more properly account for labor costs involved in retrieving files, especially when there are requests by data miners for large numbers of files."

Under the new proposal, a member of the public would shell out $10 for each and every search. The only people exempt from the fee are those involved in the case they wish to view.

Of course, the fee hasn't been well received by many members of the public and from media outlets.

"Rights fundamental to the democratic process -- like the right to know what goes on in the courts -- are meaningless if they can be disregarded when they become inconvenient," reads a January 25 letter from the California Newspaper Publisher's Association, the First Amendment Coalition, Californians Aware, and Courthouse News Service.

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