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Sierra Club v Orange County case has its Day in Court

Friday, May 10th, 2013
Article source: Bruce Joffe, GISP
Impressions of the Hearing before the California Supreme Court

On Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 14 months after all the written briefs were filed, and 20 months since the California Supreme Court agreed to hear this case, lawyers for both sides summarized their arguments and answered questions before the seven presiding Supreme Court Justices.  Attorney Sabrina Venskus represented the Sierra Club which is suing Orange County for access to its GIS-compatible digital parcel basemap database under terms of the California Public Records Act (CPRA) that include paying no more than the direct cost of duplication.  Attorney Mark Servino represented Orange County which has been requiring users of its “OC Landbase” to pay $475,000, plus sign a license that restricts sharing or redistribution of its database.
Although Orange County abruptly reduced its price late in December, 2011, the case stems from the Sierra Club’s public records act request for data made in March, 2009.  Orange County won SC’s lawsuit in Superior Court in April, 2010, affirming its right to exempt its GIS-compatible database from the CPRA.  Sierra Club appealed the decision, but Orange County again prevailed in the Court of Appeal in June, 2011.  The California Supreme Court hearing is the final appeal; its decision will be the final judicial determination of this issue.  At stake is whether the public has unfettered access to the GIS-compatible data that its government agencies use to conduct “the public’s business,” in the same geodatabase format that the agencies themselves use, or whether the government can license, restrict and charge high prices for such access.  As more and more governmental decisions and actions are based on GIS analysis, the issue is central to governmental transparency and accountability to us, the citizens of our democracy.

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