Court Employee Anonymity

Court Employee Anonymity

Q: The courts here operate with anonymity as to the identities of the employees therein, which appears to be an illegal circumstance.  Employees of the courts will sometimes inform the public their first names, and only the initials of their last names, but otherwise such simple information is treated as a secret.  Nobody has a name plate or business card, as far as the public is concerned. “Richard G.” is all the manager of jury services will reveal about his identity.

Is this practice legal?  Does anything they sign in such a manner qualify for the purposes intended?  Is this common?

A: You pose an interesting question.  The California Supreme Court recently noted that “[w]ell before the [California Public Records] Act was adopted, the Attorney General stated that ‘the name of every public officer and employee, as well as the amount of his salary, is a matter of public record.'”  International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers v. Superior Court, 42 Cal. 4th 319, 331 (Cal. 2007) (quoting State Employees’ Retirement Act, 25 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 90, 91 (1955)).  Under the PRA, the names of public employees (and their salaries) continue to be treated as public information.  Id.

However, the PRA does not apply to the judicial branch — ie, the courts.  Gov’t Code sec. 6252(a) & (f); Copley Press v. Superior Court, 6 Cal. App. 4th 106, 111 (1992).   Instead, however, the public has a constitutional and common law right of access to court documents and the information in those documents, Copley Press, 6 Cal. App. 4th at 111, and the question would be whether the names of the court employees would be considered the type of information and documents to which the constitutional and common law right of access applies.

On the one hand, the California Court of Appeal has “examined and considered the various kinds of documents which are prepared in the course of a court’s work and the purposes to which those documents reasonably should be put. We conceive a clear dichotomy between two classes of documents. The first class represents 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. Included in such documentation, which we will call Category I documents, would be the official court minutes, all its written orders and dispositions, the official reports of oral proceedings, and the master calendar. Also included in Category I of court documents would be the various documents filed in or received by the court, such as the pleadings and motions filed by the parties and the evidence admitted in court proceedings. All of these documents represent and reflect the official work of the court, in which the public and press have a justifiable interest.”  Copley Press, 6 Cal. App. 4th at 113.  The public has a right of access to all these documents and the information in those records, unless an exemption applies.

On the other hand, “drafts, memoranda, critical analyses of others’ work, and all kinds of preliminary writings,” which the Court of Appeal “call[ed] Category II writings,” is not open to public inspection.  Id. at 114.

On balance, it appears likely a court would hold that the names of the employees accurately and officially reflect the working of the court and should be public unless the court can show that disclosure of the names “would tend to undermine individual security, personal liberty, or private property, or … injure the public or the public good.”  Id. at 112 (internal quotation omitted).  In light of the many policy reasons the courts have recognized for treating the names of public employees as public information — including accountability of government — there is a good argument that generic concerns about privacy or security should trump the constitutional or common law right of access to the names of court employees.  If there were specific evidence of a threat of violence against court personnel, that might present a different circumstance.