The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that digital mapping files known as geographic information systems must be released under the state's public records law.
The decision could make it easier for media organizations, advocacy groups and others to obtain government GIS databases, rich collections of data that can be used to display and analyze multiple layers of geographical information.
The case stems from a 2007 letter the Sierra Club wrote to the Orange County assessor requesting copies of its OC Landbase, a GIS database of information on more than 640,000 land parcels. The group planned to use the database, which includes parcel boundaries, numbers and addresses, for environmental mapping projects, such as identifying land suitable for conservation.
The county argued that GIS files were "computer software" and exempt from disclosure under the state Public Records Act. County officials told the Sierra Club they would provide the data in GIS format if the organization paid a licensing fee and agreed to restrictions on its disclosure and distribution.
The county initially asked for $375,000 for the database, the Sierra Club told The Times, so the group filed suit.
Orange County won in trial and on appeal. A variety of open-government groups and media organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, filed a "friend of the court" brief before the state Supreme Court in support of the Sierra Club.
The high court ruled that such databases are public records and must be provided at the actual cost of duplication.
Forty-seven of California's 58 counties already provide GIS parcel maps as public records for a nominal fee, said Dean Wallraff, an attorney for the Sierra Club. Los Angeles County charged the group less than $10 for a disk containing the files, he said. Monday's court ruling should compel Orange County to do the same.
"We're moving into an era where most public records are being kept electronically, and the law needs to keep up," Wallraff said.
Orange County spokesman Howard Sutter said the county is reviewing the decision.
Terry Francke, general counsel for the open-government group Californians Aware, said the court's decision has major significance for the increasing number of people requesting detailed government planning and mapping databases.