Victory for Open Government

On July 8, 2013, the Supreme Court of California ruled in favor of open access to government data in Sierra Club v. Superior Court of Orange County. The issue before the court was whether the Public Records Act (PRA), which is the California equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act, required government agencies to provide Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data to the public for the cost of copying.

The County of Orange, the defendant in the case, had implemented a GIS database consisting of legal land parcels in the county. In 2007, the Sierra Club sent a letter to the Orange County Assessor requesting a copy of the OC Landbase under the PRA. The County offered to provide the information in a PDF format or as printed copy, but were of the position that the PRA does not mandate the disclosure of those records in a GIS file format. The only way the County would agree to provide the files in a GIS format was if Sierra Club paid a licensing fee. Sierra Club sued the County, claiming that the GIS database was subject to disclosure under the PRA, and that it was not required to pay the $375,000 licensing fee to access the information. The County argued that the database was considered “software” under the act, and thus was exempt from the disclosure requirements of the PRA. The trial court found for the County, and Sierra Club appealed.

Upon appeal, Michel & Associates, P.C. filed an amicus brief in the Court of Appeal on behalf of statewide members of the GIS community. Michel & Associates argued that the PRA’s software exclusion does not apply to computer data as it is not considered “software” under the PRA. However, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s holding and ruled against Sierra Club.

On July 8, 2013, the Supreme Court of California overturned the Court of Appeal and ruled for Sierra Club. The Supreme Court held that the PRA’s computer software exclusion is inapplicable to parcel data or, by implication, to another form of GIS data or computer data in general. This marks an important victory for open government, as public records are increasingly being store in databases. With this ruling, the public will have access to these records no matter how they are stored, unless an exemption otherwise applies.

Michel & Associates is an avid supporter of the Public Records Act and litigates on behalf of its clients for disclosure of information by government agencies.