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The Assembly Judiciary Committee in California approved a bill on Tuesday that will limit public access to court records and protect financial privacy of divorcing couples.
Senator Kevin Murray who proposed the bill has faced a lot of opposition from advocates of First Amendment Rights and newspapers who accuse the senator of favoring billionaire financier Ron Burkle, who asked that his financial records be hidden in his own divorce case.
However, Murray and other proponents of the bill say Burkle played no part in the decision and the new bill is designed to protect divorcing couples against identity theft.
“Because you happened to get a divorce does not mean that all your personal information should get thrown out there to the world to hear,” Murray said on Tuesday.
The committee did modify the bill, however, to require judges to determine whether financial privacy is more important than the public’s right to access on a case-by-case basis. The original bill would have allowed records to be sealed if one party asked for it.
But the committee didn’t alter legislation, which found that privacy isn’t being sufficiently protected now. Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association said it would just make judges more likely to seal financial records in most cases.
“It’s a balancing test with a thumb on the scale, or maybe an entire hand…,” Newton said. “You’ve turned the presumption of public access into a presumption of secrecy.”
Assemblyman and chairman of the judiciary committee Dave Jones disagreed with Newton. He believes judges will follow federal court standard that the public’s right of access to court records is vital and will reduce the withholding of divorce financial records.
Jones also said the bill will give judges a clear “road map” to balancing the conflict of interest between privacy and openness.
Legislation to restrict public access to financial divorce records was attempted once before in 2003. The bill was also shot down then by opponents who said the public has an interest in evaluating divorce records to ensure justice is dispensed fairly.
An appeal court found the old proposal unconstitutional and the law too broad. According to Murray, his new version of the bill fixed the issues with the old one by requiring judges to just block out financial information rather than the sealing entire documents.
The bill will face more complications before its presented to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.