A year after California's judiciary adopted transparency rules, Bay Area News Group has applied them to every court in the state and posted the 2009 salaries of all judges and thousands of courtroom employees in a first-of-its-kind database now available for public viewing.
The rules allow, for the first time, access to judicial-branch spending on personnel. Some statewide data remain incomplete.
Nine of the state's 58 county courts -- including Contra Costa's and the state's biggest, Los Angeles, either have not released pay data despite repeated requests by the news group since July or refused to put the information in an electronic format that can be displayed to the public.
The court information that has been obtained, which includes all California judges and employees of appellate courts, the supreme court and the administrative office of the courts, totals more than $1 billion in salaries for 15,377 employees. It can be found at: ContraCostaTimes.com/court-employee-salaries, along with more than 900,000 other government workers' salaries in California.
All judges' salaries have long been made public because they are considered constitutional officers and paid by the state controller's office.
What the new transparency rules make clear for the first time in state history is that the pay of all other court employees -- such as clerks, lawyers and administrators, is also public record, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition.
"They have no choice" but to release the data, he said. The new transparency rules are "as good or better than the Public Records Act," from which the courts are exempt. Though the release of the data was often slow, at "the end of the day the public wins" because it gets access to more information about how its money is spent.
The news group's county-by-county request for court pay data reveals a branch of government that appears to keep salary spending in check. Of the available data, 17 percent of court employees grossed more than $100,000 in 2009. In the Bay Area, 27.7 percent of BART workers exceeded $100,000 in 2009 pay; for San Francisco city government, the number of six-figure earners was 25.5 percent, data show.
In eight Bay Area counties where both 2009 county government and court pay data have been made public, courts constantly lagged in the percentage of employees paid more than $100,000, the data show. In Alameda County, 19.5 percent of county employees exceeded $100,000; for court employees, the percentage was 13.4 percent. In Santa Clara County, the percentages were 24.8 for the county and 17.2 for courts.
Some courts took months to make the data public -- if they did at all. Contra Costa County and Orange County courts demanded to be paid for the data under an interpretation of the access rules that no other court raised and to which the news group's attorney objects. Both courts refused to waive the fees in the interest of transparency.
Contra Costa Chief Judge Mary Ann O'Malley and court administrator Keri Torre didn't return messages about the matter.
Fresno County courts refused to put pay data in an electronic format. San Joaquin courts did not acknowledge the request until more than three months after it was sent. The court rules require acknowledgment within 10 days.
Merced, Mariposa, Yolo and Santa Barbara courts have not provided data. Los Angeles County court bureaucrats demanded the request in a letter rather an e-mail and have stalled over the request since July. In a letter last week, a court official estimated it would take another four weeks to release the information.
A former spokesman for the Los Angeles court said in an interview last week that the court's top official, Chief Executive Officer John Clarke, held meetings where he discussed how to "stonewall as long as possible" the release of salary data.
The state's largest court system "creates and condones a culture of secrecy" and its leadership "is not interested in living within the spirit of the (transparency) rule," said the former spokesman, Alan Parachini. The court fired Parachini last month, alleging that he leaked confidential information to a tabloid website, an allegation he denies. He said he is considering legal action and his dismissal was really about attempts to make the court more transparent and to aid journalists in doing their jobs.
Clarke and other court officials, he said, wanted to "make it as hard as possible" to access public information, in part by deciding to require requests be sent by postal mail and rejecting e-mailed requests. The irony, he added, is that the court is "a very responsible steward of public dollars" and the unreleased data will show no salary abuses.
Including the available court data, Bay Area News Group's salary databases, found at ContraCostaTimes.com/data, contain records detailing more than $50 billion in 2009 government pay covering nearly 1 million public employees.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele. Daniel Willis is a database producer. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow his work at Twitter.com/bayareadata.
To view the court salary database, go to ContraCostaTimes.com/