Don’t hide the legal bills

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - Os An­ge­les County

Lpays a lot of money to pri­vate law firms to de­fend against law­suits brought by peo­ple who as­sert they were beaten, mis­treated or abused while in cus­tody, es­pe­cially in the county’s no­to­ri­ous jails. In or­der to ad­e­quately as­sess how well the county’s sher­iff and Board of Su­per­vi­sors and their ap­pointees are man­ag­ing their re­sources, the public — tax­pay­ers, vot­ers and res­i­dents — need to be armed with ba­sic in­for­ma­tion about those suits, in­clud­ing the legal bills that lawyers send to the county for pay­ment.

Eric Pre­ven is one such county res­i­dent, and he sought the in­voices for a hand­ful of cases un­der the Cal­i­for­nia Public Records Act. When the county re­jected much of his re­quest, he and the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia sued. A judge ruled in Pre­ven’s fa­vor a year ago, but in April an ap­peals court sided with the county, ac­cept­ing its ar­gu­ment that billing records — in­deed, any­thing at all that passes be­tween a lawyer and client — are pro­tected from dis­clo­sure.

That’s an un­duly ex­pan­sive read­ing of the at­tor­ney-client priv­i­lege, which is widely un­der­stood to ap­ply to a lawyer’s ad­vice, a client’s di­rec­tives and other sub­stan­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tions made in the scope of the lawyer’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but not to billing records of the type sought by Pre­ven and the ACLU, cleansed of sen­si­tive in­for­ma­tion. In the case of Los An­ge­les County, where vot­ers or res­i­dents might un­der­stand­ably be­lieve they are col­lec­tively the clients and ought to have ac­cess to rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion, the priv­i­lege protects not them but their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the Board of Su­per­vi­sors.

The public should be pleased that Pre­ven and the ACLU are not tak­ing the rul­ing ly­ing down. Last week, they pe­ti­tioned the state Supreme Court to over­turn the de­ci­sion.

As in­trigu­ing as the legal is­sue is, how­ever, it should not ob­scure the ba­sic fact that the su­per­vi­sors, as the client, have the author­ity to waive the priv­i­lege and re­lease the doc­u­ments right now — but have opted in­stead to fight.

It’s the wrong move. County su­per­vi­sors have ar­gued that they are merely act­ing on ad­vice of coun­sel when they with­hold in­for­ma­tion. Some ar­gue that county lawyers ac­tu­ally with­hold in­for­ma­tion from the su­per­vi­sors, sup­pos­edly in the county’s best in­ter­est.

But the su­per­vi­sors surely re­mem­ber that their lawyers work for them and not the other way around. The su­per­vi­sors, how­ever, do work for the public. They should re­lease to the public the bills for which the public, af­ter all, is pay­ing, and not wait for the state Supreme Court to act.

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