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.