Hand Out

By Jim Sanders
Published: Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 – 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 – 7:58 am

Californians have a legal right to view court files of criminal and civil cases, but here’s the catch: It soon may cost $10.

Decades of providing free access to court public records would end under Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed state budget.

Courts would be authorized to charge a $10 “search fee” for clerks to retrieve files for journalists, businesses and members of the public, excluding parties involved in the case requested.

The proposal comes after years of cuts to California court funding, totaling more than $1 billion over the past five years, according to the California Judicial Council.

Brown’s budget also would double an existing fee for photocopying a court file – from 50 cents to $1 per page.

“The use of fees and redirecting resources have been ways we’ve been able to keep the trial courts’ operating budget stable, while other areas of the budget have seen substantial reductions as a result of the recession,” said H.D. Palmer, Finance Department spokesman.

Opponents of higher court fees said they would unduly impact low-income citizens, signal a lack of government transparency, and discourage legitimate research by journalists.

“It’s another step in making a fee-for-justice system,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat who chairs a budget subcommittee reviewing the search fee proposal.

California’s 58 trial courts, six appellate courts and its state Supreme Court deserve adequate funding without hiking fees, she said.

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the $10-per-file search fee would be a “significant impediment” to news gathering.

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