SAN FRANCISCO -- The public has the right to inspect the hiring records of police agencies throughout California and to learn the names and salaries of government employees, the California Supreme Court decided Monday.
In two lawsuits brought by newspapers, the state high court ruled against a state commission and unions for police and other government workers and declared that salary and hiring records should be open to the public.
"Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy," wrote Chief Justice Ronald M. George, the author of both majority decisions.
The Los Angeles Times brought the police hiring lawsuit after one of its reporters tried to investigate a tip that problem officers were moving from department to department around the state.
The Commission on Peace Officer Standards, which collects information from law enforcement departments, insisted the names and hiring dates of police were confidential, and a divided appeals' court ruled in favor of keeping the records secret.
In overturning that decision, the court said the public "clearly has a legitimate interest in the matters that The Times seeks to investigate."
The Contra Costa Times brought the salary suit, seeking the names and pay of Oakland employees who earned $100,000 a year or more. Lower courts ruled for the media, but employee unions appealed the case to the state's highest court.
The pair of rulings has "completely laid to rest" confusion in the trial courts over the kinds of information the public may obtain about law enforcement, said Kelli L. Sager, who represented the Los Angeles Times. A previous high court ruling had determined that records of police disciplinary appeals were not public. "It's a really important set of decisions in terms of the public's ability to get public information about public employees," Sager said.
Karl Olson, who represented the Contra Costa Times, called the decisions "a very important victory for the public's right to know." The fact that both were written by the chief justice gave them "a little bit extra oomph," Olson said.
George wrote that an officer's name and department "is information that ordinarily is made available, even to a person who is arrested by the officer, in any number of ways."
"The public's legitimate interest in the identity and activities of peace officers is even greater than its interest in those of the average public servant," George wrote.
Justices Ming W. Chin and Marvin R. Baxter dissented in both decisions on the grounds that the law provides special protections for peace officers.
In the L.A. Times case, Chin held that the ruling "substitutes the majority's view of policy for that of the Legislature." He maintained that police officers' names, departments and dates of employment represented confidential personnel records.
"I am also not convinced of the majority's view that release of the requested information poses no threat to the safety of officers and their families," Chin wrote.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard favored releasing the names of the officers, but not the departments that employed them or the dates of their hiring.
In ruling that law enforcement hiring records should be made public, the court majority said the state could refuse to release names of undercover officers who are using their real names in their work. Sager said it is "highly unlikely" that there are many, if any, such officers.
Noting that the Los Angeles Times has spent five years trying to get the records, Sager said the newspaper will now try to recover its legal fees.
"If you have to fight government for years to get records that are public, you shouldn't have to pay for that," Sager said.
Times staff writer Ted Rohrlich, who had sought the police hiring records, said he was pleased with the decision.
"It is terrific that the court has seen fit to disclose this public information," Rohrlich said. "It is a shame it took so long, and of course the ruling requires that the case be returned to [Los Angeles County] Superior Court, so it will take longer."
In the Contra Costa Times case, Chin and Baxter said the names and salaries of peace officers should not be released unless the person seeking the information asked for the salary of a specific, named officer. Chin and Baxter did not object to the release of the names and salaries of other public employees.
Duane W. Reno, who represented a union against the Contra Costa Times, said the ruling threatened the privacy of government employees.
"It means that a telemarketer can walk up to City Hall and say, 'Give me computer files of all the names and salaries of your employees,' " Reno said. "They can take that computer file . . . and make a specialized database."