Another View

Another View: Bill would not prevent courts from contracting out

September 26, 2013 

When it comes to accountability of public dollars, our judicial system should stand out as a model of integrity. Instead, The Sun-Star’s misguided editorial, “Veto bill, let courts contract out in dire times” (Sept. 24), told readers that court bureaucrats should maintain special license to operate outside common-sense laws that protect the public and protect access to our courts.

As the author of Assembly Bill 566, I must set the record straight. AB 566 does not prevent contracting out, privatization of court services or technological advances. Instead, it establishes very reasonable standards that other branches of government already must follow to ensure that when for-profit companies are hired with our tax dollars, decisions are made with cost, quality and public interest in mind, rather than cronyism.

Nowhere are such standards more important than in our trial courts, the heart of our justice system. Medical records, the identities of crime victims including children, names and addresses of witnesses and jurors in organized crime and gang trials, and DNA information are among the highly sensitive information in court records. All pivotal in the outcome of court cases, this critical information is also ripe for abuse should it fall into the wrong hands.

For these reasons, court reporters and others who hold information critical to the judicial process are sworn officers of the court, held to strict privacy standards under threat of contempt. The sensitivity of trial court proceedings were previously protected when county requirements and protections applied to the trial courts. However, when trial court funding was transferred from county to state control in 1997, these important protections were lost.

AB 566 simply returns basic safeguards to our local courts. It focuses on protecting the public’s privacy, the integrity of the courts and taxpayer dollars, not on preventing privatization.

Without question, courts and the public who count on them have suffered as a result of deep budget cuts – all the more reason to ensure court spending is transparent and accountable. As a prime example, if the same standards that AB 566 applies to local courts had been in place for the statewide judicial branch, they could have prevented a costly court computer boondoggle eventually shelved after racking up a half-billion dollar bill for taxpayers.

For the sake of justice and accountability for tax dollars, Gov. Jerry Brown should sign AB 566.

Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

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