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Timothy Crews, publisher of a small newspaper in remote Glenn County, won a victory this week in his long campaign to pry open the county trial courts’ financial records. But the victory may prove to be a hollow one. On Tuesday, the Third District Court of Appeal held that Crews’ newspaper, The Sacramento Valley Mirror, is entitled to detailed court financial records maintained by the county government. Crews has demanded receipts to document spending by the two-judge bench on meals, travel and training programs. Though the ruling is unpublished, Crews’ lawyer views it as an important step in opening court finances to greater public scrutiny. To sidestep the court’s longstanding exemption from the state’s public records laws, Crews’ suit relies on the fact that the county — which isn’t exempt — has maintained the records under a contract with the trial court. “This decision is extremely helpful,” said Davis Wright Tremaine partner Duffy Carolan, “because I don’t think people have been very aggressive in requesting court financial information on the presumption you don’t get very much.” It’s still not clear, though, that she and her client will get much in this case. According to Glenn County Counsel Belinda Blacketer, the trial court cancelled its contract with the county in April and took back its records. The court’s executive officer, Tina Burkhart, didn’t return calls about the court’s intentions. But Blacketer said she would do everything she could to comply with the Third District’s order. “I can’t see the superior court defying a court order,” Blacketer said. Crews’ battle with the bench began after the state Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 separated court and county finances. Like many small trial courts, Glenn County Superior Court decided to contract with the county to keeps its books. That opened the door for Crews to argue that the county must turn the records over under the Public Records Act. The argument was rejected by a trial judge assigned from another county to hear the case, but the Third District reversed that ruling. In her ruling in Crews v. The Superior Court of Glenn County, C042885, Justice Consuelo Callahan found “no evidence whatsoever” that the Legislature “intended for court-related financial records maintained by the county to be less accessible to the public merely because the courts now depend on state rather than county funding.” Invoking the Public Records Act allows for far greater access to court spending records, Carolan said, since the California Rules of Court only require trial courts to release annual spending summaries. Crews has said he wants to compare receipts with those summaries. He’s especially interested in seeing how and where the judges have spent money earmarked for training. Carolan said the ruling means that whenever a county handles the books, court spending records “fall squarely under the Public Records Act.” That means “you don’t have to take the court’s word” on what it spent, she said. “It’s really important considering the $2 billion the state spends every year on the trial courts.” The implications of Crews’ crusade haven’t been lost on the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. While the case was pending, the AOC hired outside counsel, Mark Wasser, with Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard, and tried to intervene in the appeal on behalf of the Glenn County bench. But the Third District declined to allow the court to join the suit. Wasser did not return calls about the AOC’s purpose in intervening. Nor did the AOC’s general counsel, Michael Bergeisen. Carolan said her next task is actually securing the records covered by the Third District’s ruling. “There will have to be some assurances that the records the county had and used will be provided in full, no matter who has them now,” she said. Blacketer, the county counsel in Glenn County, said she doesn’t plan to stand in the way. “The county never had a dog in this fight,” she said. “No one ever told [Crews] he couldn’t have [the records]. The issue was, who is in control of the court financial records?”

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