- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - A Superior Court judge has ruled for the first time that the state Legislature can be sued for access to public records under the California constitution.

Judge Michael Kenny made the ruling Friday in Sacramento Superior Court, rejecting the Legislature’s effort to toss out part of a lawsuit brought by Los Angeles and Bay Area newspapers for the calendars of former Sens. Ronald Calderon and Leland Yee, who face separate federal corruption prosecutions.

Duffy Carolan, a lawyer for the Bay Area News Group and the Los Angeles News Group, said the ruling was significant because it provides another means to challenge exemptions the Legislature has relied on to protect its records.

“This is the first time a court has ever ruled that constitutional right of access applies to the legislative branch of government,” Carolan said. “They’re claiming that their records and meetings are exempt from the constitutional right of access.”

The ruling allows the lawsuit to go forward, but the judge still must rule on the merits of the claims after a May 1 hearing.

The newspapers said the calendars should be disclosed under the Legislative Open Records Act and Proposition 59, an amendment to the state constitution passed by voters in 2004 that was intended to provide greater access to public records. Lawyers for the state said the Legislature’s records and meetings were exempt from the ballot measure.

“The mere fact that it does not provide more access than already exists by way of other statutes and regulations, does not mean that it provides less, or no avenue of access at all,” Kenny wrote. “If the intent of Proposition 59 was to exclude legislative proceedings and records from its reach, it could have plainly so stated.”

A lawyer for the state legislative counsel’s office didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.

While the decision does not set a statewide precedent, the judge put it in writing, indicating that he expects it to be reviewed by lawyers, other judges and, possibly as high as the state Supreme Court, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

The ruling means the newspapers will get their day in court. But the judge could ultimately decide that the provisions in the Legislative Open Records Act that keep records out of reach could ultimately trump the voter-approved measure.

“Prop. 59 can serve the function of plugging some of those loopholes. That was the great hope when it was enacted,” Scheer said. “It has been useful and helpful in a lot of cases, but it has never fulfilled that hope until now.”

The newspapers sought the records of Calderon and Yee to see who they met with on dates mentioned in court papers. Calderon, D-Montebello, is charged with taking bribes in exchange for legislation. Yee, D-San Francisco, is charged with accepting bribes and gun trafficking.

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