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First Amendment advocates sued the Riverside County Superior Court Tuesday to pry open a secret settlement struck with a former employee, creating a potential test case that could finally determine the reach of California’s open-government laws into the judiciary. The California First Amendment Coalition, or CFAC, joined The Press-Enterprise newspaper in challenging the court’s refusal to disclose terms of a 2005 settlement with Ann Loree, a former Riverside court commissioner. Loree left the court in 2002 and filed suit the next year, claiming she was retaliated against for complaining about gender discrimination. In legal documents, court officials described Loree as unprofessional. In announcing the confidential settlement in April 2005, neither side admitted wrongdoing and Loree dropped her lawsuit. Gary Bostwick, an attorney representing both CFAC and The Press-Enterprise, said the court must disclose terms of the secret deal under Proposition 59, the 2004 voter-approved Constitutional amendment that gives the public broad access to government meetings and writings. “This has all the makings of a test case with widespread implications,” said Bostwick, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. “I can envision this having to go all the way to the [state] Supreme Court for a ruling that anyone is satisfied with. But all we’re trying to do right now is get copies of these documents.” California’s courts have long relied on specific exemptions provided to the judiciary in open-government statutes, like the Public Records Act, to make some administrative decisions behind closed doors and to decline to release requested documents. Judicial leaders contend that Prop 59 did not do away with those exemptions. “If we prevail, it’s going to force the courts to operate in a more transparent way, not in their case-deciding functions but in their administrative functions,” said Peter Scheer, CFAC’s executive director. Lynn Holton, spokeswoman for the Judicial Council, which will represent Riverside County court officials in this case, said judicial leaders had not seen the suit Tuesday and would not comment on pending litigation. But in previous letters rejecting requests by CFAC and The Press-Enterprise to release the Loree settlement, Judicial Council Senior Attorney Yonkel Goldstein said “this is not the place to debate the effect of Proposition 59.” The court “would promptly” release the settlement if it could, but Loree won’t agree to its disclosure, Goldstein wrote in a July 2005 letter to Scheer. “The court gives appropriate weight to the public’s right to know how its money is spent,” Goldstein wrote in a similar letter to Press-Enterprise courts reporter John Welsh, “but … there are other factors it must consider here, including the potential liability it would face were it to breach a promise it had made to maintain confidentiality … .” The courts avoided a potential Prop 59 test case last year when officials agreed — after a legal request from CFAC — to release records tied to conflict-of-interest allegations against a former Marin County Superior Court executive. “That can’t happen here,” said Scheer, “because they’ve entered into this confidentiality agreement, and they believe they can’t breach it without a court order or [Loree's] consent. And she won’t give her consent.” The lawsuit creates an awkward situation, where the plaintiffs will ask the courts to essentially review the actions of their own judicial branch. “But since there’s no other way to do it, then I’m confident the courts will undertake the task and will do so in a professional and disinterested way,” said Scheer, who was the editor and publisher of The Recorder during the 1990s.

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