A Judicial Council committee on Wednesday rejected calls to narrow a proposed court rule that would allow the disclosure of taxpayer-funded settlements involving judges accused of wrongdoing.
The Rules and Projects Committee unanimously agreed to send the amendments to Rule of Court 10.500, the judiciary’s open records guidelines, to the full Judicial Council. If the council authorizes the changes at its May 24 meeting, the expanded-access rule would take effect June 1.
The revamped rules are the product of a working group convened in April by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye after judiciary lawyers revealed the branch spent $600,000 over the last decade to investigate and settle sexual harassment claims against court workers and judges. The lawyers refused, however, to disclose any details or the names of the accused.
In response, Cantil-Sakauye said there should be “no ambiguity” that “the public has a right to know how the judicial branch spends taxpayer funds.”
The working group drafted rule changes that will require financial settlements involving all types of judicial misconduct to be revealed, not just those tied to sexual harassment. The California Judges Association, along with a handful of court executives and judges who submitted comments, said the proposed rule goes too far and should be narrowed to cover only the harassment claims Cantil-Sakauye originally described.
“As worded right now, I just think there is the potential for those people who don’t think highly of us to take advantage of this language,” CJA President Stuart Rice told the rules committee. Rice suggested a family law litigant angry with a judge’s decision could sue every court officer to try and secure a settlement to publicize his or her claims.
“I don’t want us to contribute to those who wish to do us harm by giving them another potential avenue of attack on us,” Rice said.
Justice Marsha Slough of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, who chaired the working group, said narrowing the rule would not be consistent with existing state laws that favor broad disclosure of public spending.
“The reality is, we are public figures, these are public dollars and the public has a right to know,” Slough said.