SACRAMENTO -- In a move that is raising concern about limiting access to public documents, California courts could charge $10 for each record search under a proposal included in Gov. Jerry Brown's budget.
The governor included the search fee as one of the ways the courts can raise $30 million a year to offset budget cuts.
The judicial budget has been reduced by more than $1 billion through cuts and transfers over the past five fiscal years, which has resulted in fewer courtrooms, construction delays and an array of higher fees.
Media organizations and good-government advocates worry that such a fee would restrict access to files the public has a right to view. Democratic lawmakers also expressed distaste for restricting information to those who can afford it.
"Justice that suddenly comes with a big price tag so that not all newspaper reporters or members of the public may be able to get access to court records, for example, can mean justice denied," said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley. "We know that, for instance, higher fees for investigative reporting could have prevented those young journalists decades ago who exposed the Watergate scandal."
Currently, there is no charge to search a court file, although courts charge $15 to look up cases that require a court employee to take more than 10 minutes to search. Under the governor's proposal, a person could search for free for a case in which that person is a party but would be charged $10 for each additional search.
"We are supporting and proposing those fee augmentations not because we regard them as being sound policy, but out of a simple impulse for self-preservation," said Steven Jahr, administrative director of the courts.
He said court officials would rather see the Legislature restore $535 million to California's court system, which includes 58 trial courts, six courts of appeal and the state Supreme Court.
Hancock said lawmakers are holding off on the proposal until the governor updates his budget in May.
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the current system already allows the judicial system to recoup costs from large data-mining firms without restricting public access. He said the proposal should be pulled regardless of how much extra money the state might collect from recent tax hikes.
"There's a lot of people competing for those resources," Ewert said. "I'm not confident that the May revise will alter the court's position on this."
Brown's proposed budget also takes $200 million from court construction projects as a way to postpone additional cuts. He proposed delaying repayment of a $90 million court construction loan.
The governor's office says it does not comment about proposed budget changes.