BERKELEY, CA, June 16 —The California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC) and MAPLight.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization that shows the connection between money and politics, announced today that they have settled their freedom of information lawsuit against the Office of Legislative Counsel of California, having gained the object of their suit: a machine-readable database of how state lawmakers vote.
“It shouldn’t take a lawsuit for the government to realize its data belongs to the people,” said Daniel Newman, MAPLight.org’s executive director. “In this new era of highlighting transparency, we hope this settlement serves as an example to city and state governments across the country to provide public access to public information.”
California Legislative data, including how lawmakers vote, legislation in progress, and laws, was previously available to the public only in a plain-text format on the California Legislative Information website. That data was suitable for viewing and printing, but only allowed access to Legislative data at a rate of one bill at a time, making analysis lengthy and cumbersome.
“No longer can legislators use the complexity of the legislative process, and the sheer volume of bills and votes, to hide the favors they are doing for special interests that fund their elections,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of CFAC. “The more voters know about the influence of money on their elected representatives, the less tolerant they will be.”
CFAC and MAPLight.org requested copies of the electronic database used to create the website, but the Office of the Legislative Counsel refused their requests, and in December 2008 the two groups filed a lawsuit under the California Public Records Act (PRA) to obtain the electronic database records.
Shortly after CFAC and MAPLight.org filed their lawsuit, the Office of the Legislative Counsel introduced on its website a “structured database” which contains information about Legislators’ votes in a structured, machine-readable format. Having concluded that the newly-available database not only contains the same information previously available on the text-based website, but is updated in a timely manner and maintained in a format that lends itself to use and analysis not only by CFAC and MAPLight.org, but by any interested member of the public, CFAC and MAPLight.org entered into a settlement agreement with the Office of the Legislative Counsel.
As part of the settlement agreement, which is effective today, CFAC and MAPLight.org agreed to dismiss their lawsuit and agreed that they will not re-file any similar suit so long as the Legislative Counsel maintains the recently-created “structured database” at the same useful functional level at which it exists today. The new database can be downloaded by any member of the public at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov.
“Governments are increasingly maintaining information about their activities in sophisticated electronic formats, and the public is entitled to that information in those same sophisticated formats,” said Rachel Matteo-Boehm, a partner at Holme, Roberts & Owen LLP in San Francisco who represented CFAC and MAPLight.org in the PRA lawsuit. “We are pleased that the Office of the Legislative Counsel has recognized this as well.”
The settlement agreement also provides that the Office of the Legislative Counsel will release another database, known as the “Inquire” database that MAPLight.org and CFAC seek to review. The agreement also stipulates that the Office of the Legislative Counsel will pay $65,000 towards MAPLight.org’s and CFAC’s attorney’s fees.
MAPLight.org will use the structured database to create a new government transparency website, MAPLight.org California. The website will be modeled after the award-winning MAPLight.org Congress website, which provides journalists, citizens, and non-profit groups with a host of government transparency tools, including a Money and Votes database that shows the connection between campaign donations and legislative votes. MAPLight.org California’s free online database will combine all money given to members of the California state legislature with how each politician votes on every bill, revealing patterns of money and influence never before possible to see.
Background: On July 1, 2008, MAPLight.org requested basic bill information (bill text, bill history, bill status, legislator voting records, legislative calendar, etc.) in electronic database format from the California Office of Legislative Counsel for use in its MAPLight.org California website. MAPLight.org’s request was made pursuant to the organization’s rights under the PRA, the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA), and California Government Code 10248, which states that the Office of Legislative Counsel is required to make available, for each current legislative session, certain bill information in electronic format. On July 16, 2008, MAPLight.org’s request was denied.
On August 15, 2008, CFAC Executive Director Peter Scheer sent a letter to the Office of Legislative Counsel, under the PRA and LORA, requesting a copy of the same records requested by MAPLight.org. On August 18, 2008, CFAC’s request was similarly denied. On October 9, 2008, legal counsel for CFAC and MAPLight.org had a telephone conversation with the Office of Legislative Counsel asking them to reconsider their denial of the PRA requests. On October 23, 2008, legal counsel for CFAC and MAPLight.org had a subsequent conversation with the Office of Legislative Counsel in which counsel was informed that the requests were denied. On December 3, 2008, CFAC and MAPLight.org filed their PRA lawsuit in the Superior Court of California, County of Sacramento.
About CFAC: CFAC is an award-winning, nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest organization dedicated to advancing free speech, more open and accountable government, and public participation in civic affairs. The Coalition’s activities include: strategic litigation to enhance First Amendment rights for the largest number of citizens; free one-on-one legal consultations for journalists, activists, academics and ordinary individuals frustrated in the exercise of their First Amendment rights; educational and informational programs offered online, in books, and in conferences; legislative oversight of bills affecting access to government; and public advocacy.
This is one of a series of legal cases that CFAC has recently filed to break down monopoly control by government agencies over electronic information created with tax dollars. For more information, go to: http://www.cfac.org.
About MAPLight.org: MAPLight.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) organization based in Berkeley, California. Its mission is to illuminate the connection between Money and Politics (MAP) using our groundbreaking database of campaign contributions and legislative votes. MAPLight.org combines data from the Federal Election Commission, the Center for Responsive Politics, GovTrack.us, the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP), the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission and other sources to better inform Americans and local and national media about the role of special-interest money in our political system. Hundreds of newspapers, TV stations, radio shows and online news sites have cited MAPLight.org’s research, including CNN, the public radio show Marketplace, Harper’s magazine, The Washington Post, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal. MAPLight.org has received numerous awards including a Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism; a James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter and a Webby nomination for best Politics website. To learn more, visit: MAPLight.org.
CALIFORNIA FIRST AMENDMENT COALITION