Stung by a unanimous stream of criticism from the state's top three press and constitutional rights organizations, lawyers for the state Attorney General's office said they have placed a bill aimed at addressing abusers of the state's Public Records Act on a legislative "slow track" while they give the issue further study.
The bill, AB 520, was authored by Assemblywoman Wilmer Amina Carter (D-Rialto) and had been officially sponsored by Attorney General Jerry Brown. If enacted as written, the legislation would allow governmental institutions and agencies to seek out court orders against individuals whom they have deemed to be abusing or harassing the given institution or agency through improper or "vexatious" records act requests.
The legislation was scheduled to be heard by the Assembly's Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
Officials with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the California First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware all filed protests against the proposed law, saying it would have a chilling effect on the legal rights of Californians to monitor the operations of local and statewide government. Those same officials added that if a court finds the requester has made a request for "an improper purpose," it could limit or eliminate an agency's duty to respond to requests in the future.
Deputy Attorney General Marc Le Forestier, supervisor of the office's legislative affairs unit, said AB 520 has been re-classified as a "two-year" cycle bill. Under that designation the bill be kept in a legislative "holding" area and not acted upon. The Attorney General's office and Carter, however, have until the end of the year to decide whether to revive the legislation for consideration in 2010 or let it die outright.
"We believe that abuse of the Act continues to be a real problem that needs resolution," Le Forestier said. "At this point, however, we need to study the legislation further."
Le Forestier said previously that examples of Record Act abuse does exists. He said in one case a man filed a records act request that ended up with the agency involved making copies of 20,000 documents. When the agency was ready to release the documents the man never showed up to pick them up. Another case of seeming abuse involved a person who made 174 separate requests of one agency over the course of a year. He declined to name the requestors or the agencies involved, citing attorney-client confidentiality.
Terry Francke, general counsel of CalAware, applauded the decision by the Attorney General's office and Carter.
"[We believe] that it was a wise second thought by the sponsor and the author," Francke said.
Carter's press secretary did not respond to an e-mail request for comment on the bill Tuesday. The lawmaker, however, said last week that she only sponsored AB 520 as a "courtesy" to the Attorney General's office and that she would drop the bill outright if support from media industry and constitutional rights groups could not be obtained.
Follow Jeff Mitchell's political blog at BAPolitix.org