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The California Supreme Court on Monday handed two victories to newspapers seeking the salaries of public employees and termination records of police officers throughout the state. The court ruled that Oakland must release the names and salaries of police officers who earned more than $100,000 in 2004. Unions representing the police officers argued unsuccessfully that such government salary information should remain confidential out of privacy concerns.

"Counterbalancing any cognizable interest that public employees may have in avoiding disclosure of their salaries is the strong public interest in knowing how the government spends its money," Chief Justice Ronald George wrote for the majority opinion signed by three other justices. Another three justices each wrote separate opinions essentially agreeing with the majority take, with Justices Marvin Baxter and Ming Chin arguing that police officers' salaries should be exempt from public disclosure.

The ruling Monday was the result of a Contra Costa Times' lawsuit against Oakland and it also should settle an almost identical lawsuit filed by the San Jose Mercury News demanding the names and salaries of every San Jose city worker who earned more than $100,000 annually.

"I think this sets the rule for the state," said media attorney Karl Olson, who represented the Times. "These are landmark cases that serve the public's right to know."

Some of the largest newspapers companies serving California, including the owners of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sacramento Bee, New York Times and the Orange County Register filed friends of the court briefs in support of the Times.

Duane Reno, who represented the Oakland police officers argued that publicizing the salaries would open the employees to unwanted sales calls.

"Unfortunately the Supreme Court didn't feel that was a big enough invasion of privacy," Reno said.

The court also ruled in a separate 5-2 opinion that police officers' names, hiring and termination dates compiled in a massive state Department of Justice computer database also are fair game.

"It should have been a no brainer," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "We are discovering that police departments across the country are increasingly withholding this kind of information."

The Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit joined the Los Angeles Times in its legal action against the California DOJ, which refused to turn over a decade's worth of police officer information to the newspaper. Several other news organizations, including The Associated Press, also filed court papers in support of the Times' case.

The newspaper said it planned to use the information to track the movements of police officers from one department to the other while also examining staffing levels.


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