Settlement agreements tied to a claim of sexual harassment, discrimination “or other misconduct” against a judicial officer would be made public under proposed changes to California court rules unveiled Tuesday.
The amendments to Rule of Court 10.500, recommended by a group appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, would be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2010, potentially exposing eight years of settlements—and not just those involving sexual harassment—that courts have kept private by citing exemptions in the judiciary’s public records laws.
The proposed changes, below, will be vetted at a public meeting Thursday by the Judicial Council’s Rules and Projects Committee before being circulated for public comment.
Justice Marsha Slough of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, who chairs the group writing the amendments, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
The group’s proposal would add new language to an existing rule that allows courts to shield judicial evaluations, complaints and investigations.
“This exemption does not apply to any settlement agreements entered into on or after Jan. 1, 2010, including settlement agreements arising from a claim or complaint of harassment, discrimination, or other misconduct,” according to the amendments. “The names of judicial officers may not be redacted from any settlement agreement that is produced under this rule.”
Accompanying language would also clarify that disclosure of such settlements “is not constrained by which persons, division or office within the entity maintains the records.”
The proposed changes follow a directive by Cantil-Sakauye to change court rules after the Judicial Council, responding to document requests from The Recorder and other media outlets, reported in March that the judiciary had paid $600,000 since 2010 to investigate and settle five complaints against judges and court employees. Lawyers for the branch declined to identify the judges in or details of the complaints, citing rule exemptions and “complicated legal and ethical issues.”
The new requirements would extend back to 2010, the year the judicial branch adopted its records access rule at the direction of the Legislature. They would apply to all courts and the Judicial Council, the branch’s administrative arm.
The changes do not address whether substantiated complaints against judges that were not followed by a settlement agreement will be made public. The new rules are also silent on whether settlement agreements that do not specifically name a judge—only a court and victim, perhaps—will be disclosed.
In a memo to the Rules and Projects Committee, the working group acknowledged that some issues are “beyond the scope of the present rules proposal.”
“Some of these issues may eventually be clarified through future proposals,” the memo said. “Meanwhile, to address these matters, judicial branch entities should look to the text of Rule 10.500, its history and purpose, similar statutes on access to public records, and case law.”
If approved at the committee level, the rule amendments will go to the Judicial Council for final review at its May 24 meeting.