The Assembly must release member-by-member budgets and related documents under a Sacramento Superior Court ruling Thursday.
Judge Timothy M. Frawley's ruling was a tentative one, but it became final when the Assembly informed the court that it would not challenge the decision in a court hearing scheduled Friday for that purpose.
"The court concludes that the records were improperly withheld under the Open Records Act," Frawley opined in a 12-page decision.
"The court is persuaded that the strong public interest in disclosure outweighs any reason for keeping the records secret," he added.
The Assembly decision not to challenge Frawley's tentative ruling does not preclude appeal to a higher court. No announcement was made Thursday as to whether it will do so.
Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and Assembly Rules Committee Chairwoman Nancy Skinner released a one-paragraph written statement that noted the lower house's current disclosure practices mirror its policies for more than three decades.
"As we review the court's opinion, we will revise our procedures accordingly," the Assembly statement said. "We remain committed to improving public access to information about the operations of the California State Assembly."
Frawley said that California law "reflects a strong presumption in favor of public access to legislative records" and that exemptions "should be narrowly construed to ensure maximum disclosure of the conduct of governmental operations."
Though the Legislature wrote the state's open-records law, Frawley said that judges do not necessarily have to accept the Assembly's interpretation of it in litigation over its rights and limitations.
"The Legislature has no authority to interpret the laws and determine rights; that is the function of the judiciary," Frawley said.
The lawsuit, filed by The Bee and Los Angeles Times, challenged the Assembly's interpretation of the Legislative Open Records Act, a 36-year-old law law assuring public access to many, but not all, Capitol records.
The law, known as LORA, begins with a declaration that "access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business by the Legislature is a fundamental and necessary right of every citizen in this state."
Exemptions from disclosure are provided for various Assembly and Senate records, however, including preliminary drafts, personnel matters and correspondence to lawmakers and their staff.
A key question in the suit was whether member-by-member budgets and related projections or changes fall under those exemptions.