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SACRAMENTO � A bill that would conceal financial information in divorce filings cleared a key legislative committee Tuesday, but not before the author agreed to give judges a greater role in deciding what records are sealed. State Sen. Kevin Murray, D-Los Angeles, also dropped a controversial provision that would have extended redacting powers to private judges hearing divorce cases. The two changes marked significant concessions by Murray, who insisted on Tuesday that SB 1015 “is really a simple little bill.” But Murray needed those changes � and a host of last-minute huddles with lawmakers and staff � to gain the approval of skeptical Democrats on the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Murray must now work with the committee’s chairman, Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, to add language to the bill for a “balancing test” that judges would use to determine whether records should be redacted. Murray called the test language unnecessary, but Jones said he wouldn’t approve the bill without it. The uncertainty left SB 1015′s supporters and critics scratching their heads. “They just adopted a bill that hasn’t been drafted yet,” said Thomas Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which has fought the legislation. As originally written, Murray’s bill would have required judges, on the ex parte request of either party in a divorce case, to shield details about assets, liabilities, income or expenses. “Just because you happen to get divorced does not mean all your personal information should be thrown out there to hear,” he said Tuesday. The bill is similar to one passed by the Legislature in 2004 that required courts to seal entire pleadings containing financial documents. In January, however, the Second District Court of Appeal struck down the law as a violation of the public’s First Amendment rights to court records. Murray and some family law specialists insist that SB 1015 is more narrowly tailored since judges would only redact certain information instead of sealing entire documents. But the bill drew the ire of media groups and open-government advocates who said it unnecessarily blocks access to court workings. Courts can already follow guidelines set by Rule 243.1 to seal records, they noted. “To the extent [Murray and Jones] repeat that in the Family Code, they may have a bill,” Newton said. The California Judges Association also criticized the bill for encouraging secrecy and creating a potential bureaucratic hassle. Murray arrived at Tuesday’s hearing ready to nix provisions allowing ex parte hearings on sealing records and granting privately paid judges the power to redact. But he continued fighting for a concrete statement by the Legislature that divorcing spouses have “an overriding interest” in shielding their money matters from the pubic � a finding he hoped would create a courtroom presumption favoring redaction. When a lawmaker suggested softer language saying the right to privacy may override the public’s access rights, Murray balked. “That obviates the whole purpose of this bill,” he said. But when it became clear a majority of Democrats wouldn’t budge without adding judicial discretion to the bill, Murray and Jones stepped away from the hearing and began conferring in small, side-room gatherings of various combinations of staff, consultants, lobbyists and other lawmakers. The state senator finally emerged, agreeing to work on a balancing test. Critics have accused Murray of carrying the legislation for supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, a Democratic benefactor who has tried unsuccessfully to seal the records of his nasty divorce. Murray and Burkle have denied the charge, and the state has no record of Burkle ever donating to Murray’s campaigns.

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