Court Rules Judges' 'Books' Must Be Open

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a ruling prompted by a probe of improper influence peddling on the San Diego bench, a state appeal court ruled Thursday that the daily records of San Diego Superior Court judges' calendars must be opened for public review.

The records, found in what are called "minute books" usually kept by each Superior Court department, are the public's business, since they are compiled by public employees documenting the goings-on at a public courthouse, a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal said in a unanimous ruling.

The minute books contain a clerk's rough notes of the daily list of what cases and which attorneys came before a judge. The state Commission on Judicial Performance is examining whether gifts from attorneys to San Diego judges influenced the outcome of any cases. The books might show which lawyers appeared before which judges.

Last month, the presiding judge of the 71-judge Superior Court, Arthur Jones, blocked reporters from reviewing the books. He said they were "nobody's business but (the) clerk's."

That led to the appeal to the 4th District court, brought by the Copley Press, which publishes the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In a lengthy opinion, Judge Charles W. Froehlich Jr. said some court documents clearly are open to the press, such as opinions and legal briefs, while others clearly are not, such as the personal notes a judge makes of testimony during a trial.

The minute books, Froehlich said, were "on the margin," since they are handwritten, informal records. But, he said, the better policy is to open them for review, since they provide the only chronological record of a judge's business.

Judges Richard Huffman and Donald R. Work joined the opinion.

It remained unclear, however, how soon the books might actually be opened to the public. The appellate court order does not become final until May 12, and Froehlich said some Superior Court judges may need to remove confidential information from the books.

Guylyn Cummins, an attorney for the Copley Press, said the newspaper would ask Jones for a hearing "as soon as possible" to iron out logistics.

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