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It’s a common courtroom scene. A snag arises during the taking of a plea. Court is briefly adjourned while counsel retreat to the judge’s chambers and work out the problem, in private. Ten minutes later everyone returns and the plea is put on the record, satisfying the letter if not the spirit of open court proceedings. Now the judiciary is taking the same kind of approach to its own affairs. As The Recorder reported Thursday, a proposed ballot initiative, SCA 7, would eliminate the courts’ exemption from the state’s public records laws. And the courts, while officially neutral on the proposal, clearly aren’t crazy about the idea. The Administrative Office of the Courts is creating a veneer of openness by making available courts’ quarterly financial statements. But the documents relied on to create those statements generally remain under wraps. Consequently, the courts are placing themselves beyond accountability. For example, San Francisco Superior Court’s quarterly report indicates it spent $10,000 in the previous fiscal year on “training.” Santa Clara County Superior Court, on the other hand, spent $200,000. Did Santa Clara train far more people than San Francisco? Or did it fly everyone to Acapulco and pay Zig Ziglar $50,000 to give a motivational speech? There is no way to tell from the quarterly report. Five years ago, there was one small window available into court finances. The courts were funded by the counties, and the way counties spend their money has always been open to public scrutiny under state law. So details on how a superior court awarded its dependency counsel contract, for example, could be obtained by going through the county. Then the responsibility for funding trial courts was shifted from the counties to the California Judicial Council. But no provision was made to keep financial information public, and there is no longer any opportunity for meaningful review. Requests for financial records are now routinely met by the reflexive response that courts don’t have to provide such information because they’re exempted from public records laws. “The Brown Act [on open meetings] does not apply to the court,” Santa Clara County PJ Richard Turrone said when we asked for details of the bidding process for the court’s $7 million dependency contract. “We have the right to hold matters in executive session, to speak frankly and openly.” But why should courts have that right? Most everyone appreciates that judicial deliberations — discussions with colleagues and research staff on legal issues before the court — need to be confidential. That is not the issue. But somehow the courts have managed to take that necessary exemption and apply it broadly to policy decisions on court operations — which arguably should be public — and the ways in which courts spend taxpayer money — which clearly should be. When the media try to look into these matters, presiding judges often adopt a paternalistic attitude. “These are sensitive policy issues,” said San Mateo Superior Court Judge John Runde. All the more reason they should be open for public review. “This stuff is meaningless to most people,” said Alameda County Presiding Judge Harry Sheppard, referring to court finances. “Some of this stuff is not too spicy.” We’re sure it’s true that the financial management of most courts is boring. But that also would be true of most publicly traded corporations. And as has been amply demonstrated recently, it’s still a good idea to have someone from the outside check into it every once in a while. William Vickrey, the AOC’s administrative director, says his organization is moving toward a statewide audit and financial control system. “The information about how money is spent and how significant decisions are made should be accessible,” he says. “I don’t think there is a reason our procedures should provide a different level of access.” Those are reassuring words. But it’s not clear yet that the AOC is fully committed to the principle. The organization initially asked the sponsor of SCA 7 to give the judiciary a blanket exemption. And Vickrey says he hopes the courts “would achieve [openness] with or without SCA 7.” In any event, many of the local presiding judges have not yet adopted the AOC’s stated commitment to openness. If SCA 7 should ever make the ballot, they may have to. Editor in Chief Scott Graham’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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