September 16, 2011 | By Mark Rumold

California Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Electronic Public Records Case

When a state government stores public property information in an electronic format, the format of its storage shouldn't change citizens' right to access the information, right? Well, wrong -- at least in California after a recent Court of Appeal decision. But, in an encouraging sign, on Wednesday, the California Supreme Court granted a petition to hear the case and review the lower court's decision.

The case, which we blogged about here, involves an attempt by the Sierra Club to obtain Orange County's GIS basemap -- essentially, a collection of public property information stored in a database in a GIS-compatible format -- through a California Public Records Act ("CPRA") request. Orange County refused the request and, instead, offered to license the database to the Sierra Club for a tidy $300,000 fee.

At both the trial and appellate level, the courts upheld Orange County's decision to withhold the database. The parties did not dispute that the information contained within the database was public information that could be obtained in a paper format, albeit a voluminous one. Instead, Orange County argued, and the lower courts agreed, that by virtue of storing the information contained within the paper public records in a database, the information became part of "computer software," thus placing it within an exemption to the CPRA.

The proposition that the lower courts' decisions stand for -- that a state entity can strip otherwise public information of its "public" status, simply by virtue of its inclusion within "computer software" -- has grave implications for California's commitment to transparency and open governance in the digital world. In an amicus letter in support of the Sierra Club's petition to the Supreme Court, we argued that this concern, above all else, required the Court's attention.

Despite the petition's long odds (the California Supreme Court receives around 5,000 petitions annually, and only grants review in 2% of cases), the Court unanimously voted to grant the Sierra Club's petition and to hear the case.

We're thrilled the Court recognized the significance of the case to the future of the CPRA. As we did at both the appellate and petition stage, EFF plans to file an amicus brief urging the Court to adopt a rule that enables broad citizen-access to public information, regardless of the format in which that information is stored.

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