The press won in a California Supreme Court lawsuit seeking the release of details in abuse cases at government-run facilities for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.
The court voted unanimously that the records should be made public except for patients' names for privacy reasons.
The state's highest court said a law intended to protect patient privacy should not shield the state from revealing the circumstances behind citations issued against state-run, long-term care facilities.
The decision was a victory for California's Center for Investigative Reporting, which wanted copies of nearly five dozen reports on physical abuse, negligent medical care and other improprieties at state institutions for the developmentally disabled.
The state gave the center 169 pages of documents but redacted almost every word. The center was reporting on lapses in policing abuses at facilities in Los Angeles, Orange, Sonoma, Riverside and Tulare counties, where about 1,800 patience with such disabilities as severe autism and cerebral palsy reside.
Duffy Carolan, who represented the investigative reporting center, called the ruling "a complete victory under the Public Records Act."
"These are key documents that show what is transpiring at the facilities and now residents at the facilities and their families and the public are going to be able to hold the facilities and the Dept. of Public Health accountable," Carolan said.
She said a reporter had learned that 11 patients in a Sonoma County facility had been repeatedly shot with a taser gun. But the documents the state produced were so heavily redacted that "you couldn't even tell what had happened to those residents."
Thursday's ruling said a state law requiring disclosure of abuses took precedent over an earlier law that barred release of patient information.
The case required the court to reconcile a law protecting patient confidentially with a more recent law that said citations against homes for the developmentally disabled must be made public.
Justice Goodwin Liu, writing for the court, said the more recent law "demonstrates that the Legislature thought carefully and specifically about the importance of publishing citations."
Liu said the Legislature "concluded that patients' and residents' confidentiality was adequately protected by redacting the names of the victims of a violation."
Supporting the investigative center in the case were the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., the Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Newspapers Inc., the First Amendment Coalition and California Broadcasters Assn.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Grant Lien, who represented the state Dept. of Public Health in the case, could not immediately be reached for comment.