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California Supreme Court Ruling a Victory for Public’s Access to Government Documents

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By Brian Hews

In a victory for public agency transparency, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that, if a case is resolved, a public agency’s legal bills are public record.

Several public records requests over the past three years by Hews Media Group-Community News were declined because of a lower court ruling in favor of protection, that ruling has now been overturned.

“Invoices for legal services are generally not communicated for the purpose of legal consultation,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar wrote, “rather, they are communicated for the purpose of billing the client.”

Cuéllar continued, “And to the extent they have no other purpose or effect, they fall outside the scope of an attorney’s professional representation.”

The case centered on a dispute where the ACLU requested billings from Los Angeles County. The county complied but said three cases were still open and that the attorney-client privilege protected those documents.

The ACLU sued with the first judge siding with the organization and ordered Los Angeles County to produce the invoices, the county appealed.

The appeals court sided with the county ruling that legal invoices were not public record because they amounted to legally protected communications.

The ACLU appealed to the California Supreme Court and won this past Thursday.

Cuéllar said the bills for “long concluded litigation are open to public record.” Cuéllar was joined by Ming W. Chin, Goodwin H. Liu, and Leondra R. Kruger.

Justice Kathryn Werdegar, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Carol A. Corrigan dissented.

Werdegar wrote, “following today’s decision, attorneys in this state must counsel their clients that confidential communications between lawyer and client, previously protected by the attorney-client privilege, may be forced into the open by interested parties once the subject litigation has concluded. ”

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