California Supreme Court Decision Expands Public’s Right to Access Government-Held Digitally-Formatted Data
by Sabrina Venskus*
The California Supreme Court issued a landmark decision clarifying that the California Public Records Act ("CPRA") allows the public access to government-held electronic data in Sierra Club v. Superior Court (2013) 57 Cal.4th 157 ("Sierra Club"). The issue before the Court was whether Real Party in Interest County of Orange’s land parcel database in an electronic Geographic Information System ("GIS") format must be provided to the public, upon request, pursuant to the CPRA.
The Court reversed the trial court and Court of Appeal, unanimously ruling that a land parcel database in an electronic GIS format is a "public record" and therefore must be provided to a requestor subject to the CPRA’s terms. Thus, Orange County was required to produce its land parcel database upon request at the actual cost of duplication, here the price of a DVD. In its decision, the high court supplemented its usual approach to interpreting a statute by utilizing a rule of statutory construction unique to laws involving government-held information, like the CPRA. That rule, found in the California Constitution, provides that the "people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business . . . .A statute, court rule, or other authority . . . .shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people’s right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access."1