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Santa Clara County, Calif., Superior Court has agreed to hand over a copy of its electronic case management database in a settlement that could serve as a road map for courts struggling with opening computer records to the public. Court administrators have agreed to copy the court’s civil case management database for the San Jose Mercury News, ending more than a year of litigation. The Mercury News sued the court, its CEO Kiri Torre and then-Presiding Judge Richard Turrone in federal court in October 2001 after the court refused to provide access to the database. The newspaper’s attorneys argued that the trial court was restricting access without first meeting the procedural and substantive requirements for denying public access to court records established under the First Amendment, state law and the California Rules of Court. California courts are exempt under state open records statutes, and First Amendment attorneys say case law on court records is scant. So the agreement reached with Administrative Office of the Courts general counsel at the table could be a model for future disputes over opening up electronic access to court records. “A settlement is never a binding legal precedent, but a settlement nonetheless can have an important impact, showing there is a basis for seeking information and that the disclosure of information … can help the public and is not going to cause the sky to fall,” said James Chadwick, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based partner with Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich who represented the newspaper. Though the settlement details are not secret, neither court officials nor the Mercury News would release a copy on Monday. Court administrators and their lawyers would not comment on the case. The Mercury News negotiated with the court for nearly a year to obtain the database, Chadwick said. The newspaper filed suit after the courts repeatedly refused to release the information and then shut off the public’s access to case management terminals in the courthouse. “The records of the courts are expressly not subject to the California Public Records Act nor is there much in the way of federal statutes,” Chadwick said. But “the First Amendment creates a presumption of public access to most court records.” Recent California case law carved out by NBC Subsidiary v. Superior Court, 20 Cal.4th 1178, and Judicial Council rules passed in 2000 “reinforce the message of openness” for court records, Chadwick said. In NBC Subsidiary, the California Supreme Court found that a trial judge violated the First Amendment by closing the courtroom and delaying transcripts in a high-profile case brought against actor Clint Eastwood by his former live-in lover, Sondra Locke. Chief Justice Ronald George, who authored that opinion, later asked the council to create statewide standards for sealing records. Jerome Falk Jr. of San Francisco-based Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, who represents the courts, said, “Everyone had the same goal in mind of providing the public, and therefore the press, the most information in the most convenient form. “It’s a kind of good-news story in that while this started with the lawsuit, it got resolved in a pleasant discussion that never had to go to court. Parties did resolve it because parties shared the common goal of getting information to the public in a convenient way.”

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