Proposition 59, also known as Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 1, or the "Sunshine Initiative," would make access to government records and meetings a civil right under the California constitution.
The California constitution section addressing citizen rights (Article I) does not expressly address the public's right to information. For much of the state's history, access to public records was addressed only in the Government Code. The rules were only generally defined and what records were open to the public was difficult to determine outside of court interpretation. In 1953 the California Legislature passed the Brown Act, which required open meetings of local government. Then, in 1968 the California Public Records Act (CPRA) as enacted, modeled closely on the federal Freedom of Information Act. The writers of the CPRA held that it is essential to a democracy that citizens be guaranteed the right to monitor their government's activities. The CPRA provides that all documents generated by local or state government are public documents and must be made available to the citizenry. While there are some exceptions, the CPRA requires government agencies to make records promptly available to any citizen who asks. In addition to the CPRA, the California legislature passed the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA) in 1975. It clarified rules on the request of documents and the time frame in which the government has to respond.
While the existing laws declare access to information a right, many believe that the laws do not effectively force the government to release information. The laws allow some information to be kept sealed in the interest of privacy, and many critics say that the public's right to know has been weakened by flawed legal interpretations supporting unwarranted privacy claims. In several key cases the courts have ruled in favor of the government's right to keep records private. In Times Mirror Co. v. Superior Court (1991) the Sacramento County Superior Court held that the Legislature can keep documents private which reflect the "deliberative or policy-making processes of executives." In Rogers vs. Superior Court (1993) the Los Angeles County Superior Court expanded the Times Mirror decision by including cellular phone records of city council members as exempted documents. In addition, the California Government Code makes law enforcement records universally exempt from disclosure. Critics say that this keeps the public from being able to correctly monitor the activities of law enforcement agencies.
Public access advocates claim that the CPRA and LORA are ineffective because there is no mechanism to enforce the law when public officials or agencies refuse to release documents. Currently, individuals must sue the government for full disclosure and critics say that lawsuits are too expensive and time-consuming for most citizens to pursue. Critics claim that government agencies and officials who fear disclosure of questionable practices and policies have more to lose by releasing information than keeping it secret, since citizen requests are not likely to be pursued in the courts.