SACRAMENTO — A little-known law is making it difficult for historians, journalists and First Amendment advocates to gain access to Attorney General Jerry Brown's papers from his two terms as governor.
With Brown all but declared as a candidate for governor again, his papers — documents that cover the wide swath of decisions he made in office from 1975 to 1983 — are that much more relevant, analysts say. But a 50-year secrecy shield instituted with the help of Brown himself shortly after he left office has kept much of his historical records under strict control of caretakers at the University of Southern California.
"If you want to be governor of California and you want voters to make an assessment on your candidacy, what could be more relevant than records of when you were an actual governor?" asked Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which filed a Public Records Act request to gain access to Brown's papers in October. It remains under consideration.
Brown's top adviser, Steve Glazer, said the former governor "has the ability to grant access and is happy to grant access to the First Amendment Coalition as we have in the past. Others have been granted access."
That was somewhat confusing to Scheer, who said he has had at least three conversations with Brown's office without success.
"I appreciate the fact he would let my organization have access, but we're asking the attorney general to agree to waive the exemption that applies to all of his public records," Scheer said. "Unless they waive it for everybody, they can selectively open the doors for limited access to favored requesters."
The Bay Area News Group on Thursday filed a Public Records Act with the attorney general's office, asking that Brown waive the Public Records Act exemption that governors have.
Joe Mathews, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said he has not heard from the attorney general's office on his five-month-old request to gain access to Brown's papers for a soon-to-be-released book he co-wrote on California during Brown's administration.
"There's no good reason for this, even if you accept the idea you need some protection for some period of time," said Mathews, a former Los Angeles Times reporter. "They're public records, they have historical value and they have value to voters."
The irony, he said, is that Brown helped push the exemption to the Public Records Act he signed in 1975 that made governors' papers public for the first time. In a 1988 battle between Brown and the Secretary of State's office over who should control his papers — the state archives or Brown — lawmakers required that the state archives hold all governors' records, after George Deukmejian.
A little-noticed provision — overlooked in the aftermath of a fight over who could have custody of governor's papers rather than who had access — provided the 50-year secrecy protection that Brown wanted.
"They were fighting so much over custody and not access, so it became law without much notice," Mathews said.
The record of Brown's first go at the governorship may not reflect the kind of governor he would be today, said Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State. And, he added, there is already plenty of history compiled on Brown.
"It's hard to know whether the energy delving into the past is really worth it," he said. "There are reasons to be curious, but I also wonder if it could deflect from the here and now."
Scheer said he saw value in records on Brown's decision-making on such major topics as Proposition 13 or the Peripheral Canal, which could be useful in understanding Brown's policy choices.
"I don't see how it could possibly be in the attorney general's interest to stand on this exemption," Scheer said. "But if he did, and I had to go to court, I'd argue that the exemption for public records is invalid after 12 years. There's no rational reason to provide any more protection for California gubernatorial records than for U.S. presidential records."
Under the Presidential Records Act, all records other than classified or those with privilege claims become public in 12 years.
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.