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.
The Bee and the Times argued that the public has a "profound interest" in understanding how the Assembly allocates its $146.7 million annual budget among members.
The Assembly characterized member budgets and changes to them as preliminary drafts because they can change throughout the year; correspondence because they are sent to members; and confidential because they can contain personnel information, such as whether an employee will take a leave of absence.
Frawley ruled that member-by-member budgets are not preliminary drafts because they reflect final decisions about allocating funds. The fact that they can be changed throughout the year does not exempt them from disclosure, he said.
"If the exemption were construed this broadly, virtually every document related to the Assembly's business would be exempt from disclosure, since virtually every document could, at least in theory, be modified at some later point in time," Frawley's 12-page ruling said.
Frawley also turned thumbs down on the argument that member budgets are exempt from disclosure as legislative correspondence simply because they are sent to members. He drew a distinction between correspondence and communications.
To accept member budgets as correspondence, he said, "would permit the Legislature to shield any document from public view simply by transmitting it to any Assembly member and/or his or her staff."
The Assembly consistently has said that it releases other but ample data for the public to monitor its spending - staff rosters detailing each employee's salary, and an itemized list of expenditures by member and by committee after they occur.
"These reports provide the public a clear, accurate, and detailed summary of how the Assembly and each of its members spend funds," the Assembly said in court documents.
The lawsuit disagreed, saying that the spending reports - typically released 12 months after a legislative year ends - obscure how much money lawmakers truly spend to run their offices, partly by failing to identify how many salaries of personal aides are being paid with policy committee funds.
The lawsuit also noted that the spending reports would not resolve an allegation by one assemblyman, Anthony Portantino of La Cañada-Flintridge, that his office budget was slashed as punishment by Pérez because he was the lone Democrat to vote against this year's state budget.
The lawsuit stemmed from Portantino's fight with Assembly leaders after they accused him of overspending and threatened to furlough his staff for six weeks.
Portantino countered by demanding member-by-member budget records that he claimed would show that he simply was being punished for his vote. The Bee and the Times filed public-records requests seeking many of the same documents.
When the Assembly balked at releasing the records, citing LORA exemptions, the newspapers filed suit Aug. 5.
Portantino hailed the judge's decision today as "a tremendous victory for democracy."
"Hopefully, now policy can be judged on the merits of the policy -- not on the ability of the leaders to use budgets as a way to influence decisions," Portantino said. "Frankly, it saddens me that Assembly leaders have spent so much time fighting for secrecy."
* Updated at 3 p.m. to add information from the judge's tentative ruling and to add a quote from Assemblyman Anthony Portantino. Updated at 5:15 p.m. to say the tentative ruling will not be contested by the Assembly.