SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court recently issued a
closely split ruling in a case involving whether or not the legal
bills from settled suits involving government entities within the
state are public information. A member of an advocacy group wonders
how the decision will affect taxpayers.
On Dec. 29, the court voted
4-3 that while the bills for long-settled legal
matters could be accessed by the public, those invoices relating to
current or pending litigation were protected by the purview of
The plaintiffs in the suit, government-transparency advocate Eric
Preven and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California,
claim that their California Public Records Act request for copies of
bills from Los Angeles County in regards to the payment of lawyers
defending the county from civil-rights abuse allegations were
summarily denied, and a trial judge agreed with the plaintiffs. When
the county appealed, the appeals court ruled that the bills were not
accessible to the public because they were confidential client
information with attorneys.
The plaintiffs took the ruling to the state Supreme Court. In his
majority opinion, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote
that “the contents of an invoice are privileged only if they either
communicate information for the purpose of legal consultation or risk
exposing information that was communicated for such a purpose. This
latter category includes any invoice that reflects work in active and
Joseph Francke, a California attorney and member of the
government-transparency advocacy group Californians
Aware, told The Northern California
Record that the court’s decision was much broader than it
needed to be in this matter.
Francke said that because of this ruling, “all the public can
see while the case is alive is the amounts actually paid to one or
more outside law firms — for unspecified services.” What the
public may be having hidden from its review are some hypothetical,
yet possible, questionable acts.
The taxpayers, Francke said, may be getting billed for legal
services provided by law firms that could be employing an official’s
relative, using a disbarred lawyer, hiring poorly rated lawyers, or
using the services of a firm that “bills far above the typical
hourly rate in the area for one or more relatively minor services
having nothing to do with litigation.”
Several years ago, a suit filed by attorneys David Mann and Donald
Cook on behalf of a married couple who were incarcerated by Los
Angeles County’s Task Force for Regional Autotheft Prevention also
involved a CPRA petition for access to county government legal
invoices from prior suits.
In that case,
a trial court had sided with the plaintiffs, but had allowed for the
redaction of attorney payment and work-related information. Los
Angeles County fought the ruling and the case progressed to the
California Court of Appeal. The court ruled that documents related to
attorney fees paid to defend a government body from civil-rights
abuse claims were not exempt from CPRA.
Francke said that CPRA “simply says that it does not require
disclosure of information subject to any privilege in the Evidence
Any attempt to narrowly define the application of the state law so
as to include “attorney-client privilege” should be done by the
Legislature and not left to the court, he said.