Accessing Court Records and List of Cases

Accessing Court Records and List of Cases

Q: Made FOIA request to the appellate court for list of cases (included those unpublished) filed for appeal relating to 2 Superior Court judges for past 5 years. Response was a letter stating they didn’t have any cases on file for me. There is, in fact a case on file but not what I asked for.Made 2nd FOIA request for same information. Response was they did not keep those kind of statistics and referred me to and see info concerning opinions. This is not what I requested and only lists unpublished cases for 100 days previous. I know that this data is required by law to be gathered. Which law/statute?
There is an unusual number of affirmations coming out of the appellate court with these judges rulings. How do I get to the information?

A: With respect to your request for the Superior Court records, these court records would likely not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), which applies only to federal agencies.  The records also would likely not be subject to the California Public Records Act (“PRA”), which applies to the local agencies but does not apply to courts.  See Cal Govt Code Section 6252(a), (f).Oziel v. Superior Court, 223 Cal. App. 3d 1284, 1292 (1990);see also People v. Rhodes, 212 Cal. App. 3d 541, 552 (1989).  Access to court records is governed by other laws.  There are two main categories of court records.  The first category includes documents typically found in the file for a particular case (e.g., documents filed by the parties to the case and written orders of the court), together with docket information providing basic information about cases.  The second category would include documents that concern the administrative operations of the court, judge’s internal notes, emails, and the like.

As to the first category of documents, the public has a presumptive right of access to those documents unless the court has specifically ordered them to be sealed.  In order to seal such documents, the party wanting the documents to be sealed must file a motion to seal under California Rules of Court Nos. 2.550 and 2.551 (conversely, if those standards and procedures are not met and/or satisfied, the records must be unsealed).  Those rules are based on a California Supreme Court case calledNBC Subsidiary (KNBC-TV, Inc.) v. Superior Court, 20 Cal. 4th 1178 (1999), which found a First Amendment right of access to civil court hearings and records.  Also, inCopley Press v. Superior Court, 6 Cal. App. 4th 106, 112 (1992), the court explained that “court records” are open for public inspection, which are defined as “the record or official entry of the proceedings in a court of justice, or of the official act of a judicial officer, in an action or special proceeding.”  See also Cal Civ. Proc. Code Section 1904.  The court explained that there is a presumptive right of access to “documentation which accurately and officially reflects the work of the court, such as its orders and judgments, its scheduling and administration of cases, its assignment of judicial officers and administrators.” Id. at 113.  InCopley, the court ultimately determined that a clerk’s “rough notes” were “court records,” and thus subject to disclosure. Id.

There is, however, no similar right of access to the second category of documents under either the First Amendment or the Rules of Court.  To date, members of the public have generally been unable to obtain access to these documents.

I can identify two primary obstacles to your request.  First, it is not clear whether the “records” you seek actually exist as independent records.  I understand that you are seeking a list of particular cases, but it is not clear that there is a pre-existing list of these particular cases.  You mentioned in your inquiry that the court is required by law to keep this data, but I know of no law that requires the courts to maintain lists of of cases that fall under certain categories, such as a list of cases filed for appeal relating to specific judges.  If there are no such records, I know of no obligation the courts have to create a record of the data you seek from independent data.  Next, if these records do exist, whether you can have access will depend on whether the record is a “court record” subject to public disclosure, or whether it concerns the administrative operations of the court, in which case there would be no requirement to make the data public.  Because the data you seek arguably relates more to the “scheduling and administration of cases” than it does to the internal processes of the courts, you may have a strong argument that disclosure is required.