Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, July 19, 2019


Page 1


California Supreme Court:

Good Cause Need Not Be Shown for Access to Court Files

Opinion Says Statute Limiting Opportunity of Death Row Inmate to Inspect ‘Discovery Materials’ For Use in Seeking Habeas Relief Doesn’t Apply to Exhibits in Possession of Court Clerk


By a MetNews Staff Writer




The California Superior Court yesterday granted writ relief to a man sentenced to death for a murder, holding that he need not show “good cause” to gain access to ballistics evidence in the court’s files for use in connection with a habeas corpus petition.

The opinion, by Justice Carol Corrigan for a unanimous court, countermands a determination by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Laura L. Laesecke who found that good cause was required, and not shown. Laesecke relied on Penal Code §1054.9 which provides that a prisoner sentenced to death or to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole may obtain an order for “discovery materials” but “only upon a showing that there is good cause to believe that access to physical evidence is reasonably necessary to the defendant’s effort to obtain relief.”

In denying access to exhibits to William Tupua Satele—who was sentenced to death in 2000 for double slayings in 1998—the judge explained:

“It finally sort of dawned on me why I’m struggling, and it is because of the phrase ‘good cause.’ I’m not seeing that there is good cause. Good cause to believe that the access to the physical evidence is reasonably necessary for the defendant to get relief.”

Div. Three of the Court of Appeal for this district summarily denied a writ petition.

Not ‘Discovery Materials’

Corrigan said in yesterday’s opinion that court records are not “discovery materials.” She wrote:

“Discovery is generally understood to mean an exchange of information among the parties to an action….The trial court and its clerk are not parties to the criminal action. We have found no published decision applying the discovery provisions of section 1054.9 to materials held by the court. On the contrary, all have addressed requests for materials possessed by the prosecution or law enforcement authorities.”

She pointed out that §1054.9 specifies that “ ‘discovery materials’ means materials in the possession of the prosecution and law enforcement authorities,” and declared:

“Based on the statute’s plain language, the good cause requirement does not apply to evidence possessed by the court clerk.”

Remaining Question

The justice continued:

“A question remains: If section 1054.9 does not govern here, what standards control access to physical evidence retained by the court as a trial exhibit?”

In answering the question, she cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc., the case which denied broadcasters immediate access to White House tape recordings that were played at the trial of four Watergate conspirators. Corrigan drew attention to this observation by Justice Lewis Powell (since deceased):

“It is clear that the courts of this country recognize a general right to inspect and copy public records and document, including judicial records and documents.”

Corrigan also noted that California Rules of Court, rule 2.550(c), provides:

“Unless confidentiality is required by law, court records are presumed to be open.”

May Impose Conditions

She added that the trial court may impose provisos.

“The court’s jurisdiction to entertain a request for access to court exhibits derives from its inherent supervisory power over its own records and files,” Corrigan wrote, adding that California Rules of Court, rule 2.400(c) authorizes an order for release of exhibits for use outside the courthouse.

“In fashioning such an order,” she said, “the court retains inherent authority to consider such factors as the need for testing, the administrative burden attendant to testing, any conditions necessary to maintain the integrity of the exhibit and chain of custody, as well as other equitable factors.”

The opinion directs the Superior Court “to exercise its inherent authority to grant access under whatever conditions it deems necessary.”

The case is Satele v. Superior Court, 2019 S.O.S. 3397.


Copyright 2019, Metropolitan News Company