Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Attorney-Client Privilege Trumps Local Ordinance—C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The attorney-client privilege takes precedence over a San Francisco ordinance requiring broad disclosure of public information, the First District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The privilege is incorporated in the city’s charter, the court held, and therefore preempts any conflicting provision of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance.
The court overruled San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith, who said that a specific provision of the 1999 Sunshine Ordinance, requiring disclosure of communications between the City Attorney’s Office and city officials or employees about the ordinance itself, or other public records or ethics issues, be disclosed.
Allen Grossman, a retired lawyer and open records activist, invoked the California Public Records Act and the ordinance in 2012, seeking documents related to the city Ethics Commission’s enforcement of the ordinance. The commission produced more than 120 documents, but withheld 24 communications between the commission staff and the City Attorney’s Office.
The disputed documents related to the process of drafting regulations governing the resolution of disputes regarding production under the ordinance. The Court of Appeal had previously stayed Goldsmith’s order.
Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Diana Becton, sitting on assignment to Div. One of the Court of Appeal, yesterday sided with the city.
Becton explained that the charter establishes “an attorney-client relationship between the city attorney on the one hand, and City and its officers and agencies (including the Ethics Commission) on the other.” By establishing such a relationship, the jurist said, the charter made the Evidence Code’s statement of the attorney-client privilege applicable to all communications between the city attorney and the officers and agencies.
Becton rejected Grossman’s argument that the charter should be interpreted narrowly in order to reconcile it with the narrow carve-out for disclosure in the ordinance.
The charter, she wrote, is unambiguous in its creation of the attorney-client relationship, she said, to which the privilege is central. Nor, she wrote, have California’s open-government laws been interpreted to trump the privilege in the past.
The case is St. Croix vs. Superior Court (Grossman), 14 S.O.S. 3935.
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