By Cheryl Miller
February 22, 2013
“The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”
— California Constitution, Article 1, §3 (b)(1)
For decades, California’s courts have upheld, even championed, laws granting the public open access to government meetings.
They’ve enforced strict boundaries on what elected officials can discuss in closed session, chastising one city for using open meeting exemptions “as a shield against public disclosure of its consideration of important public policy issues.” Shapiro v. City Council of San Diego, 96 Cal.App.4th 9904 (2002).
They’ve ordered agencies to provide the public with accurate agenda descriptions of what they plan to do in session — and then stick to them. Carlson v. Paradise Unified School District, 18 Cal.App.3d 196 (1979).
And they’ve deemed public access to government information a check “against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.” CBS v. Block, 42 Cal.3d 646 (1979).
But when it comes to running their own governmental house, judicial leaders have taken a more do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do approach.
The Judicial Council meets regularly in closed session, each time citing an expansive Rule of Court that gives the chief justice broad authority to shut out the public. Sometimes a vague reason is given for the closed session — “privileged attorney-client discussions,” for example. Many times, however, the meeting is simply listed as a “nonbusiness meeting” and closed. There guidelines for when a meeting can be closed are vague and rarely does the council report any action taken in such meetings.
While the council circulates agendas prior to its meetings, the five so-called internal committees that perform much of the planning and policy shaping for the branch do not. Brief minutes of these committees’ meetings are usually included in the Judicial Council agendas, but often not until months after the gatherings occurred.
The council’s Dec. 14, 2012, information packet, for example, included minutes for an Aug. 12, 2012, meeting of the Policy Coordination and Liaison Committee. The summary noted that the committee had opposed a pending bill dealing with bail procedures for felony suspects. But it offered no record of committee members’ votes and no reasoning behind the committee’s stance. And by the time a report of the committee’s action was made publicly available, the bill had already died in the Legislature more than two months earlier.
The workings of the council’s more than three dozen advisory panels, task forces, working groups and subcommittees are even more secretive. No agendas or minutes for their meetings are posted publicly. Instead, the administrative director of the courts offers in his regular reports to the council two- or three-sentence reviews of their recent gatherings.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the council hasn’t considered whether the branch should be doing so much work in private because “no one’s really asked.”
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