California Elected Officials' Emails in Personal Accounts Now Subject to Public Records Law

Today the California Supreme Court decided unanimously that public officials' emails and text messages on personal accounts are subject to public disclosure under the Public Records Act if they pertain to government business. The decision overturns a Court of Appeal judgment and opens up a wide new frontier of records to researchers. 

However, there is an important caveat to the decision, as the court did not specify what methods and policies a government agency should employ to search for communications on private accounts, instead allowing for wide latitude in that interpretation, so long as it meets the standard of exercising "reasonable effort" in the search. For example, the court offered that one possible solution would be for governments to require the employees to self-search their personal communications: 

"As to requests seeking public records held in employees' nongovernmental accounts, an agency's first step should be to communicate the request to the employees in question. The agency may then reasonably rely on these employees to search their own personal files, accounts, and devices for responsive material."

Alternatively, governments could enact restrictions to prevent officials from communicating about government business over personal accounts in the first place, or requiring them to copy all such communications over to official accounts. 

Read the full Supreme Court decision here. And read the Los Angeles Times's story discussing the history of the case, originating in a now-8 year old public records request for email communications by officials in San Jose related to a development project which has since been completed.