The California Supreme Court suggested Wednesday that state law gives the public the right to know the names and salaries of government employees, including police officers.
During two hours of oral argument, the state high court reviewed cases brought by two newspapers, the Contra Costa Times and the Los Angeles Times, seeking access to information about public employees.
In the Contra Costa Times case, the newspaper sought the names and pay of Oakland employees earning $100,000 or more. Lower courts upheld the media’s right to the information, but unions for the police and other workers took the case to the state high court.
The court appeared ready to rule in favor of the media but also to carve out exceptions for rare cases in which revealing an officer’s identity could threaten his or her safety.
In the Los Angeles Times case, the court seemed divided over whether the public was entitled to state records showing the names of police officers and when they were hired or had left police agencies.
The Times requested the information from the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to try to track the movement of problem officers from department to department.
During argument on the Contra Costa Times case, attorneys for the unions opposing disclosure of names and pay told the court that releasing such information could make workers vulnerable to identification theft and targeted mass marketing, and invade the privacy rights of police officers.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George seemed unconvinced.
“I don’t understand what is so personally intrusive about knowing what somebody on the public payrolls is earning,” George said. “Doesn’t the public have a right to know?”
Justice Joyce L. Kennard agreed, telling opponents of disclosure, “With respect to salaries, I don’t think you have state law on your side.”
But Kennard and three other justices suggested that the names of police officers whose identification might endanger them, such as those working undercover, could be redacted under the law.
Karl Olson, representing the Contra Costa Times, told the court that years of previous disclosures of police officer names and salaries had produced no cases in which an officer’s safety was jeopardized. “I have not seen it,” he said.
The Contra Costa Times already has received the files it requested, and the case is being kept alive because the issue might arise in other legal disputes.
“Just because you have not seen it,” Kennard said, “does not mean it won’t arise in the future.”
Olson said only “exceptional circumstances” could justify secrecy.
“That’s what we’re talking about -- exceptional circumstances,” George said.
In the Los Angeles Times case, a trial judge in Sacramento ruled that The Times was entitled to peace officer names and hiring records, but a divided court of appeal disagreed.
Questioning a lawyer for The Times, Kennard again raised the possibility that “safety concerns” might justify keeping an officer’s identity private.
Kelli L. Sager, representing The Times, called the concern hypothetical and said undercover officers do not typically use their real names.
Justice Marvin R. Baxter suggested that disclosing the dates of an officer’s employment at a particular police agency would be disclosing his or her employment history in violation of state law. Kennard made the same point.
Sager said that the Legislature, in protecting the “education and employment history” of officers, was referring to the kind of information that might be provided in a resume.
She said people who become government employees expect to lose some of their privacy. Police, she said, “have the authority to use lethal force.”
Deputy Atty. Gen. Michael E. Whitaker, representing the Commission on Peace Officer Standards, argued that the law clearly prohibits public disclosure of the names of officers and their work dates.
Justice Carol A. Corrigan seemed skeptical. She noted that such information would become public “the very first time” a rookie officer testified in a case he or she worked.
“We haven’t gotten to the point yet where police testify incognito, right?”
When Whitaker said that the state still could not release an officer’s name and employment dates, Corrigan quipped: “The public may have a right to know this, but they can only find it out in more difficult ways?”
Times staff writer Ted Rohrlich sought the information from the state in a public records request.
“I requested the information as part of an effort to check out a tip that there was a systematic problem with police officers behaving badly and then moving from one department to another and then another because of a lack of oversight and licensing,” Rohrlich said.
“Without these records there is no starting point,” he said. “The idea that a request for information under the California Public Records Act would take more than five years to resolve is disturbing and likely to discourage complex reporting undertaken by less committed news organizations.”
The court will decide both cases within 90 days.