California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, seen in January, wrote the 4-3 ruling that said a government agency’s legal bills are generally public record in cases that have been resolved. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Maura Dolan
December 30, 2016

A government agency’s legal bills for a case that has been resolved are generally public record, a divided California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 4-3 decision reflected tensions between California laws that give the public broad access to government information and historic legal protections for confidential communications between lawyers and their clients.

“Invoices for legal services are generally not communicated for the purpose of legal consultation,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote for the majority. “Rather, they are communicated for the purpose of billing the client.

“And, to the extent they have no other purpose or effect, they fall outside the scope of an attorney’s professional representation,” said Cuéllar, who was appointed to the court by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The three dissenting justices contended the ruling undermined a pillar of California law and might have unintended consequences.

“Following today’s decision, attorneys in this state must counsel their clients that confidential communications between lawyer and client, previously protected by the attorney-client privilege, may be forced into the open by interested parties once the subject litigation has concluded,” wrote Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, joined by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Carol A. Corrigan.

The case was brought by Eric Preven, an advocate for transparency in local government, and the ACLU of Southern California. They had used the state’s public records act to request copies of bills that Los Angeles County received from outside lawyers defending nine lawsuits charging brutality in the jails.

The ACLU and Preven suspected that the firms were engaging in a “scorched earth” strategy that was costing the county millions of dollars in fees for cases that should have been settled.

The county complied with the request for three lawsuits but argued that the attorney-client privilege protected the others because the suits were still pending.

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