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When Megan Gray sent a runner to pick up a copy of a case docket from the Superior Court clerk’s office in Santa Clara County, Calif., the Los Angeles-based attorney was surprised he came up empty-handed. “I made him go back and say, ‘No, you must have done something wrong,’ ” said Gray, an associate with Baker & Hostetler. “ The case is not sealed. It’s not a juvenile case. There is nothing special about the case.” When Gray’s runner returned without the docket but with a copy of a flier posted in the clerk’s office that said the public no longer had access to case histories, Gray, who handles First Amendment Internet cases, was angry. She fired off a sharply worded letter to Presiding Judge Richard Turrone and court executive Kiri Torre. Gray isn’t the only attorney alarmed by the court’s decision to deny access to its computerized dockets and database of basic case information. Court administrators say they closed access after ongoing computer upgrades turned up inaccurate and confidential information. The upgrades won’t be completed for another 10 months, and even then, court administrators can’t promise access will be restored. Media lawyers including Edward Davis Jr., who represents the San Jose Mercury News, have approached the court arguing that it’s crucial attorneys, the public and media be able to view the dockets, which record a case’s progress through the system. No suits have been filed yet. Attorneys say they hope to resolve their complaints informally, but need to hear from court officials. “We are very concerned about the policy in Santa Clara County,” said Davis, a partner with Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich in Palo Alto, Calif. “Their response is less than clear. We are trying to figure out their justification.” Previously, attorneys, the public and the media were able to access case information through two computer terminals in the clerk’s office. Court users could pay for docket printouts. Court administrators disabled the terminals earlier this year to upgrade the computer system. When the system went back online this August, fliers posted in the clerk’s office notified users that complete docket information was no longer available. Turrone said he received Gray’s letter Monday, but wasn’t prepared to discuss it. The presiding judge said balancing access and confidentiality issues can be challenging. “We are going through a complete renovation of our computer systems,” Turrone said. “We were concerned that things were not always accurate, so we did not make it available.” Turrone did not say whether docket information would again be made available and referred specific questions to Torre, who oversees the clerk’s office. Torre blames the ongoing computer upgrades, and said a new system is supposed to be up and running by July of next year. What is made available then, Torre said, will depend on new court access rules that she expects the state Judicial Council to address at its regular meeting next month. Ellen McCarthy, a spokeswoman with the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the agenda for that meeting hasn’t been set. “I think our responsibility is to provide accurate information that affects people’s lives,” Torre said. “I know it’s cumbersome in the short term.” James Penrose, owner of Pacific Research & Retrieval in San Jose, Calif., said many of his large firm clients in San Jose, Palo Alto and San Francisco frequently asked for printed docket information on related cases. The new access policy means he now must page through files and create an informal docket. The additional time means law firms are billed six to eight times as much for the same information. “Attorneys walk in every day and ask for docket sheets. That’s the only way you can navigate a case, especially a complicated case,” Penrose said. He said clerks will read out portions of dockets but said the process is cumbersome. It forces him to rely on clerks to understand the technical legal filings, and the information can’t be easily relayed to his clients. Davis said court administrators have cited privacy and accuracy concerns in explaining the new access policy, but he isn’t satisfied. “We think the balance is highly skewed in terms of access,” Davis said. “It’s such a radical departure in what we’ve seen in courts before.” While court records are not covered by California sunshine laws, Davis said First Amendment case law clearly defines the limited circumstances when courts can deny access to public information. “Basically there has to be an important governmental interest. It just can’t be speculative,” Davis said.

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