Santa Clara County Courts Put Own Interests over the Public’s with No-Photo Policy for Records

A picture is worth a thousand words. But is it really worth 50 cents?

That’s a question raised in Tracey Kaplan’s new report about an antiquated public records rule set by the Santa Clara County Superior Court. In order to obtain court documents, the public (and press) are required to pay two quarters for each page copied. The court system in this county forbids anyone from going the modern-day route and simply snapping a photo with their phone—unlike other jurisdictions such as Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties.

Why should Santa Clara County be so stringent on requiring fees for court records that, depending on the size of the request, can take hours and hundreds of dollars to obtain?

The answer is self-evident: money.

But beyond that, could the local court system have an interest in denying the public easy access to information? Let’s take a walk.

The pay-to-access model puts an obvious hardship on people with limited income, and the county’s waiver process is absurdly invasive. Per Kaplan:

Santa Clara County court officials noted that people who can’t afford to pay for copies may apply for a fee waiver. Anyone who is on welfare or who grosses less than $1,256.26 a month is eligible. If your income is greater but you still can’t afford the copies, you have to divulge your expenses, including for rent, groceries, clothing, child care, laundry, transportation and utilities,  and also report how much is in your bank account and any assets like a car, stocks or “furs.”

How dusty does the rulebook look when the requirements involve divulging one’s laundry habits and taking stock of one’s fur inventory? (Quick, mother, hide the spoons!)

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a group that has worked with San Jose Inside on recent legal disputes, tells Kaplan that there is  “no principled justification” for the no-photo rule beyond throwing up a “barrier to public access.”

But when Kaplan pressed the court on this thought, “Court officials in Santa Clara County defended the policy, saying it eliminates the risk of people with cell phone cameras harassing other courthouse visitors by taking their pictures.”

This is such a non-sensical argument one would expect it to come from court spokesman Joe Macaluso—except Macaluso got canned in the spring for being bad at his job.

Benjamin Rada, the court’s current media relations rep, admitted in a call Friday that people aren’t playing paparazzi on one another in the Hall of Justice. “No, it’s not a thing that happens all the time,” he said. While there is a rule forbidding cell phone photos in the courthouse, not once have I seen people spying on one another as they wait in line for sedated court clerks to amble between files.

Speaking of lagging, Rada noted that the court generally takes about a week to grant a waiver to those who can’t afford fees, which could be the difference between winning and losing a case. The court spokesman suggested a person in dire need of a waiver could file an ex-parte motion. Of course, that would usually require an attorney, who, of course, would need to be paid by someone who is admittedly broke.

Rada acknowledged, “That’s kind of the point, yes.”

A more complex question is why does Santa Clara County’s court system continue to make its legacy one of opaqueness and obstructionism, where the court’s interests are prioritized over the public’s?

Recent examples include Judge Ron del Pozzo failing to disclose his conflicts of interest in a highly publicized corruption case, court officials ignoring the fact that an interpreter shortage resulted in people having their rights deprived, and the entire judicial community rallying around Aaron Persky as the Stanford rape case judge is on his way to being recalled.

Kaplan notes in her report that greater enforcement of the no-photo policy only came after an outspoken critic of a judge was seen taking photos of court files. We’d ask presiding judge Patricia M. Lucas if increased enforcement stemmed from a personal dispute, but her honor has never once granted San Jose Inside’s interview requests. Rada told San Jose Inside on Friday that the court has no plans to revise its policy on photographing court files.

A photocopy may not be worth a dollar, but it’s certainly worth a discussion.

Josh Koehn is the managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

48 Comments

  1. I don’t see ANY connection in this report between the Court’s ridiculous policy on document copying fees and Judge Aaron Persky’s recall. So, why bring it up?

    Otherwise, a good report.

  2. This article makes no sense. The whole point of County government is to use the peoples’ money to allow the maximum number of marginally skilled workers to be overpaid for working a short career from which they can enjoy a long, comfortable retirement. I fail to see how allowing citizens to keep their money when we could just as easily be taking it from them helps the County to fulfill it’s mission. Am I missing something here?

  3. Mr. Koehn: Thank you for cutting to the chase. The court’s record duplication policy is all about money, and generating revenue for the court. End of story. But in an additional plot twist, the no cellphone photos “rule” is selectively applied and enforced against whistleblowers. Last month, using the no cellphone photos “rule” as justification, courthouse deputies harassed and assaulted whistleblowers Scott Largent and Susan Bassi. A deputy broke Bassi’s finger.

    The NBC Bay Area story about the incident is at this link: https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Woman-Claims-Santa-Clara-Deputy-Broke-her-Hand-After-Courthouse-Confrontation-458410203.html

    The original video from the incident is posted as a playlist at this YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLMijyO2QQNo47cYyXTyh-zbdaqEgQSGVI

    For updates and additional information visit the Commission on Judicial Performance Reform Project Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/CommissionOnJudicialPerformance/

    • What’s really going on here is a bunch of vexatious family law litigants who got sanctioned in Santa Clara Family Court. They are all a bunch of disgruntled litigants who got what they deserved in divorce court. Now they are wasting everyone’s time posting extremes about any judge they’ve had and any attorney from the opposing side. And they are trying to involve the media in their personal dramas. This is a sick group who needs to be in mental health therapy. If you have nothing better to do, you can investigate this group since it’s all public record anyway. They make no sense, they are all victims, and it’s everybody else’s fault. The cell phone recording happened when Sue Bassi aka Sue Bee aka Sue Hazlett got caught videotaping when the police told her friend to stop taking pictures. She uses her journalism card whenever it suits her to play the victim. Her personal case is in Santa Clara Court where she spends all her time trying to expose the courts. Okay people, yes there are some bad apples out there, but really Sue Bee, you need a REAL life. Stop wasting the taxpayers money. No one cares about your persona life or divorce. Stop fabricating stories about everyone. The judge sanctioned you because you deserved it. He declared you vexatious litigant because you deserved it. Go cry yourself a river.

      • you are absolutely right Anonymous. There are so many more facts on her in her dissolution and the way she has conducted herself. You don’t get to be on the vexatious list because they are all mean to you ad you don’t own any of it. Lol.

  4. “A more complex question is why does Santa Clara County’s court system continue to make its legacy one of opaqueness and obstructionism, where the court’s interests are prioritized over the public’s?”

    A lot of people have been asking this question for a VERY long time. Santa Clara County, and Contra Costa are among the worst state court systems, in terms of transparency and accountability, in the state of California. But many other are very close to being as bad.

    The court system in general in California is like a large monopoly on the general public’s health, welfare and funds. Justice is a thing of the past. Welcome to America, and the rigged California justice system, where even with a ton of money you can probably bet on not finding justice.

    • The press IS allowed to take pictures in the file viewing room. The general public is not.
      Anyone can bring a scanner and spare the per page cost. Let’s tell the WHOLE TRUTH.
      Signed
      “Sedated Clerk”

      • Sedated Clerk: You are misinformed or being deliberately dishonest. The “file viewing room” at the Santa Clara County Family Justice Center Courthouse at 201 N. First Street consists of computer terminals on which to view court records. There are no paper files. A hand scanner cannot be used to scan a court document on a computer monitor. The “whole truth,” as you call it, is that, by design, there is no way to avoid paying 50 cents PER PAGE for copies of court records, which often consist of dozens of pages, sometimes over 100 pages. This is not a bug, it’s a feature, because it raises significant funds for the court off the backs of the public.

        • Cathy, Thanks for your post & links. About 3 years ago, I scanned paper copies and observed others doing likewise at the 191 N. First St court building. While seemingly a senseless restriction, can someone scan records at 191 that they would be otherwise be prohibited from photographing on displays at 201 N. First?

          Will be interesting to see what the court requires for press credentials. There may be ways to circumvent the restrictions and a business opportunity. Seems like someone with press credentials could be selling screen shots. Reporters are already compensated for this – just indirectly.

          I dislike restrictions on the information in general. That we paid for the data collection and storage makes court these restrictions abhorrent.

          • There are nothing but paper files at HOJ.
            As Tracy mentioned above. A waiver can be obtained within a weeks time. As long as one manages their time sufficiently they can obtain them for free. If time is an issue they can ask for a continuation in court citing more time is needed. It’s done everyday.

          • Sedated, Thanks for the polite and informed responses. It’s consistent with my experience about 3 years ago. No doubt there’s room for improvement, yet there may be legitimate reasons for the ‘no video/photo’ prohibition. It’s disappointing to see the rush to judgement and disdain for public service.

            Particularly disappointing is the absence of actionable recommendations by critics. What’s required to fix this and by whom?

        • Actually Cathy this computerare the micrifichr machines for files that have been put in microfilm from the 70 and 80’s.
          There is a viewing room separate from that area and there ARE PAPER FILES. I have been there myself to view my own family court file. Have you gone to view a file before?

          • Sedated Clerk: Cathy Cohen is part of a special interest group. What’s really going on here is they are a bunch of vexatious family law litigants who got sanctioned in Santa Clara Family Court (and Contra Costa). They are all a bunch of disgruntled litigants who got what they deserved in divorce court. Now they are wasting everyone’s time posting extremes about any judge they’ve had and any attorney from the opposing side. And they are trying to involve the media in their personal dramas. This is a sick group who needs to be in mental health therapy. If you have nothing better to do, you can investigate this group since it’s all public record anyway. They make no sense, they are all victims, and it’s everybody else’s fault. The cell phone recording happened when Sue Bassi aka Sue Bee aka Sue Hazlett got caught videotaping when the police told her friend to stop taking pictures. She uses her journalism card whenever it suits her to play the victim. Her personal case is in Santa Clara Court where she spends all her time trying to expose the courts. Okay people, yes there are some bad apples out there, but really Sue Bee, you need a REAL life. Stop wasting the taxpayers money. No one cares about your persona life or divorce. Stop fabricating stories about everyone. The judge sanctioned you because you deserved it. He declared you vexatious litigant because you deserved it. Go cry yourself a river.

          • I have been viewing files at the new courthouse since it opened. Perhaps the confusion is I am referring to the new Family Justice Center Courthouse at 201 N. First Street, San Jose. I have never seen any indication there is a “separate” viewing room for paper files. There is only one room with computer terminals. It sounds like you are referring to a different, older courthouse.

          • At the link included with this comment is video from a Sacramento whistleblower and media group of the file viewing room at the Santa Clara County Family Justice Center Courthouse. There is no microfiche machine. There is no paper file viewing area. I have, however, occasionally seen older paper files that have not yet been digitized viewed in this area (at a computer station). Under an illegal order issued by Presiding Judge Patricia Lucas, no one, including the media is allowed to photograph court records They can’t be scanned either.

  5. Josh, thanks for giving the matter more visibility, but it omits some key aspects:
    1. How much money is at risk if photocopying were allowed?
    2. Who determines the policy and what’s required to change it?
    3 .Which elected officials other than judges can effect change through budgetary leverage?

    • hahaha!!!! Sue Bee or Sue Bassi or is it Sue Hazlett? Anyway, she is a reporter who has her personal divorce in Santa Clara Court and got sanctioned and vexatious. She’s just mad at everyone. She wasn’t harassed. The police told someone to stop taking photos and he didn’t comply so miss susie-body had to start using her reporter’s card to video-tape. They all know who she is because once you harass them they know you. so she got caught and told to stop but rather than stop she fought and got her finger broken. so now she is broken finger susie.

      • This is a bitter troll who writes at a 6th grade level. To mock a female victim of police misconduct who had her finger broken for no legitimate reason, irrespective any other circumstances, is unconscionable.

        • Cathy Cohen: “This [Anonymou5user] is a bitter troll who writes at a 6th grade level.” He/she should be commended for ease of comprehension if so. Ernest Hemingway wrote at a 4th grade level per a Flesh-Kinkaid analysis of Old Man and the Sea. 6th grade level is recommended for training and instructional material.

          “To mock a female victim…is unconscionable.” Police brutality is often cited by protesters, but rarely upheld. Isn’t it a bit premature for sexist virtue-shaming until the matter is adjudicated?

          Regardless, Ms. Bassi’s experience is a separate matter than public records access. Sedated Clerk’s comments suggest there are reasonable alternatives. If not, please provide facts – not ad hominem invectives.

  6. It is a wholly underreported civil rights nightmare happening in California’s deeply budget-cut courts, for the socioeconomically depressed public living below the poverty line, and often on food stamps. Indeed, attacks upon and barred access of, poor litigants is a well-known class discrimination inside California’s courthouses. Yet, the expulsion of camera recordings, public documents access, transcripts and now even reporters, via a plethora of various unconstitutional “orders” is keeping the problem from public awareness. But that is changing. https://youtu.be/-28fomOhfi4

    • Would it disturb you to know that in some courthouses and courtrooms, like Contra Costa County, the equipment for recording is INSTALLED IN THE COURTROOMS? Yet it is not being used. Can you guess why? Why would the courthouses and the judges want the public to know what really goes in inside the courtroom? But more importantly is the fact that the equipment for recordings is there and fully functional. And DELIBERATELY not used.

      How about that access to justice? Another “tax and spend” decision on behalf of California government to plunk down money for upgrades that would improve transparency which judges and courthouse execs DO NOT WANT.

  7. The court system and most other Santa Clara governmental agencies are set up to satisfy the needs of the adults who are supposed to be providing second to none service to the public who pay their salaries and retirements. The Court would run like a fine-tuned clock if it were not for those pesky community members seeking service!

    This culture of public service employee entitlement also affects many other sectors of Santa Clara public organizations. Some public organizations like the Santa Clara School District actively seeks to deny service to community members. They hire ex-police officers to monitor whether or not community members who send their children to their school actually live within the District boundaries. The ex-police officer keeps a public record of notches on a board for every family that he successfully removes from the school roster. The saved money goes to support the nepotism and cronyism that is rampant in the Santa Clara Unified School District.

    It boggles the mind!

    The photocopiers belong the people!

  8. Certain types of documents *are* available online via the SCC portal (see https://cmportal.scscourt.org/Portal ; search for “Cordwell” to view a case with e-filed documents). See also the comment on the same page:

    “* Complex Civil Litigation documents are now available at no cost. The Court may charge fees to access documents in the future.”

    • Thank you Marty, I do believe that this is also why files are being done electronically now because of the Odesdy system coming soon that will allow folks to obtain documents electronically, apparently tho it appears some believe this to be a conspiracy of some sort when in actuality it is to make access easier.
      To each their own.

      • You mean this system Odyssey, that hosed a bunch of cases in Alameda County?

        http://www.eastbaytimes.com/2017/02/01/alameda-county-court-computer-system-continues-to-cause-unlawful-arrests-and-imprisonments/

        “Alameda County: Court computer system continues to cause unlawful arrests, imprisonments”

        Also, it appears lots of the Alameda County electronic documents still have to be gained on-site, and cannot be accessed remotely via the website. Electronic docs obtainable at the court house are a step in the right direction, though I’m not sure that the chosen technology of the Odyssey system is as stealthy and robust as you make it sound here, Sedated File Clerk…

        I really hope they fixed the mess caused by Odyssey in Alameda court.

    • Thank you for pointing out that the the court provides complex civil litigation documents at no cost. In family court, over 70 percent of court users are self-represented because they can’t afford a lawyer. They are low or no-income and financially disadvantaged. So the court hits them with outrageous copy fees. Meanwhile, the attorneys involved in “complex civil litigation” get their copies for free. Can you see the problem? How many parties in a “complex civil litigation” case do you think are self-represented? I’m guessing none.

      • I did some digging on the new courthouse. There is one room with two computers that have electronic files on them. There is a second room for viewing paper files.

        So you are correct in that the electronic files can not be scanned.
        But if one has a cell phone for taking photos then they have a cell phone bill and if they can pay that I’m sure five bucks for 10 copies should not be that big of a deal. If it is, then time management in the wY of looking ahead 7 days can get them a waiver. The court staff wages , toner , paper, electricity. And machine maintenance are all covered for .50 cents a page.

  9. It is a wholly underreported civil rights nightmare happening in California’s deeply budget-cut courts, for the socioeconomically depressed public living below the poverty line, and often on food stamps. Indeed, attacks upon and barred access of, poor litigants is a well-known class discrimination inside California’s courthouses. Yet, the expulsion of camera recordings, public documents access, transcripts and now even reporters, via a plethora of various unconstitutional “orders” is keeping the problem from public awareness. But that is changing. https://youtu.be/-28fomOhfi4

  10. I am a public employee with expertise in the Calif. Public Records Act. I don’t see how the court can justify $.50 per page given that the CPRA only allows “direct cost of duplication”. That means paper, toner, and the de minimis moments required for the clerk to stand at the copier. Notably it does not authorize charges based on the time required to find the record and retrieve it. Most agencies have settled on $.10 per page as a reasonable fee. I also do not believe the CPRA allows an agency to prohibit someone from using their cellphone camera to take a picture of the public record. The 1st A. coalition should sue; it would be a slam dunk.

  11. Thank you San Jose Inside for covering this issue. I have done a records request and the response shows that the court budgets $1 million a year for copying costs, meaning the printer, etc. They collected from July to October 2017 just over $91,000, The courts also have a history of outright lying to the press to get the narrative they want. Mr. Rada said that it was the court policy to prevent photos in order to protect the privacy of children and CP cases. If you have a CP case, your cases are deemed confidential, which is not done for people in divorce cases with children. Further, in the same room where police broke my hand and harassed two fathers viewing their court files, the court had piles of documents sitting in the open public space, where anyone could see files in CP and confidential fee waiver cases. Apparently the court is spending resources beating up on people who take photographs of public court files, while carelessly violating the law and the privacy of many more people as a pattern and practice that existed even before over $300,000,000 was built on that fancy new court. You would think for all that money we would have more access to justice, as they promised, not less, like we got!

  12. Thanks, Susan. If I understand your comments correctly, the court collected $91K during a 3 month period; extrapolating would be about $364K / year to copy (@.50/ page) 728K pages. Office Depot charges $0.42 per page for single copies. Others are less expensive.

    Wonder why profit-making entities are at least ~20% cheaper than one that’s just supposed to cover costs?

  13. Do rhese numbers include certification fees? I’m orrery sure Home Depot don’t certify their documents. And I’m sure that Home Depot don’t pay me what the court pays me. Apples to apples please!

    • Of course Office Depot doesn’t pay you what the government pays you. Office Depot pays people what their skills are worth. You are paid what your union extorted from the government under threat of strike. I support unions for private companies — Tesla, for example, very much needs the UAW — but NOT for government servants! You should be there to serve your county. If you want to make a lot of money, go work in the private sector.

  14. Sedated, Apples to apples will be tough – even if comparing the cost per page of one court versus another. I can imagine where let’s say Santa Clara County’s fee would be different than say Nevada County – and both would be defensible.

    Cost Accounting is not exact or reproducible. Different accountants can and do treat items differently. The Statewide Civil Fee Schedule shows variability http://nccourt.net/documents/public/Civil_Fee_Sched.pdf . Fees differ widely. Unlawful detainer filing surcharges vary from zero to $50 (Riverside County). Many do not need certified documents just as most don’t need certified mail. San Jose State/ SJ Public library, charges $0.20 / per page – a 250% price differential.

    From the $86M annual budget, the $364K repro revenue is less than the $370K postage cost. It’s four tenths of a percent of the *unaudited* Court’s annual budget: http://www.scscourt.org/general_info/news_media/newspdfs/BaselineBudgetPlan2017-18.pdf While important to prevent abuse if repro were free, the $0.50 / page fee looks increasingly unjustified.

  15. It is stupid. Residents pay taxes. Land in Silicon Valley is very, very valuable. Therefore the City of San Jose and the County of Santa Clara probably have a huge income in property taxes along with income taxes.

    These are records to which people are entitled. It is not a privilege to view one’s birth certificate or the deed to one’s land. It is a right.

    Non-military government employees are overpaid to an extreme degree. It isn’t even so much their salary when they’re employed but their retirement. But non-military government workers should be paid on the same pay schedule as the military. If your job requires a college degree (engineer, doctor, lawyer), you should be paid an officer’s salary, if not, then you should be paid an enlisted person’s salary. Here’s the current DFAS pay scale for the US Armed Services:

    https://www.dfas.mil/dam/jcr:0066b0ac-2d02-47a6-8b78-1cdc91b56ef7/2017MilitaryPayChart.pdf

    So when you just barely start out as an entry level court clerk you should be making E-1 pay, which is what you would be making in the United States Army and what I made in the United States Navy when I was in boot camp (basic training), or $1479/month. After serving four years, I was an E-4 or 3rd Class Petty Officer. If I were in the USN right now and I had been an E-4 for six months I would make $2088/month.

    There’s no reason a junior court clerk should make more than someone who is out there putting themselves at risk to defend this country.

    If you’ve been a court clerk for 20 years, you might be the equivalent of a Master Chief Petty Officer, paygrade E-9. Then you would make about $5k/month.

    Of course, the government servants make double or triple these figures, and still want to go on strike. Ridiculous.

    • We don’t make enough money to even live in the same county we work in. We are paid money that leaves us living below the poverty line. So obviously it’s not about making money and is about serving our county. I drive two hundred miles a day to SERVE SAN JOSE so don’t even go there
      Because I don’t make enough money to buy or even rent where I work.

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