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State high court rules public has a right to know

The California Supreme Court's ruling in two cases demonstrates a court philosophy that favors open government over the privacy of public employees.

Open government is a central tenet for democracy. After all, if it's your government then you have the right to know what your money is going toward. But what about the rights of public employees' personal privacy? As reported in today's SFGate , the California Supreme Court has ruled that "the public has the right to know the names of police officers and the salaries of local and state government employees."

The court came to a similar ruling in two separate cases:

In one case, four of the court's seven justices ruled that the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training must disclose the names, departments, hiring and termination dates of California law-enforcement officers. A fifth justice said only the names had to be released.

The court held out the possibility that the information could be withheld in extraordinary circumstances, such as when releasing an officer's name could jeopardize an undercover agent's safety, the court said.

In the other case, involving the city of Oakland, five justices said state law requires the disclosure of the public employees' salaries. Two other justices agreed but said police officers' pay information should be confidential.

In both cases, the court said the state Public Records Act granted reporters the right to see the information.

The Oakland case appears to be the more clearcut of the two. After the Contra Costa Times requested data on those city employees who earn more than $100,000 each year,` they were rebuffed by the city of Oakland and filed suit. While labor unions asserted that salary information should be privileged information, the courts did not. From my perspective, there seems to be little argument in favor of keeping this information private. It is the public's right to know how much civil servants are being paid. When public employees are earning salaries that seem unreasonably generous then the people should have an opportunity to challenge these wages.

Things become a little cloudier when it comes to the case involving the police. While there is an obvious need for oversight of our police forces, it is also easy to understand why officers would feel uncomfortable about their identities being made public; however, it's important to note that the information made available through the suit does not appear to include officers' addresses, which obviously would make police more vulnerable to attacks and harassment. In the court's ruling, Chief Justice Ronald George supported his decision stating, "Peace officers operate in the public realm on a daily basis and identify themselves to the members of the public with whom they deal."

Overall, I'm quite pleased to hear about the California Supreme Court's rulings. As George wrote in the ruling, "Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy," and it is encouraging to see that the California courts realize this basic principle.