Getting facts out of Melville has been tough lately

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Getting facts out of Melville has been tough lately No big deal. That’s what Carrie Wagner said when I called the Santa Barbara Superior Court this week to request information from her boss, Judge Rodney Melville. No big deal? The information is available? Have I died and gone to First Amendment heaven? Isn’t this the same judge who issued a gag order, sealed most court records and is keeping secret most official documents in the Michael Jackson child molestation case? That’s our man. But I wasn’t asking about the Jackson case. Although Melville recently released a highly edited version of the defense motion to throw out the charges against Jackson, we’re still coming up empty on most fundamental facts. You’d think we were asking for state secrets rather than basics that most judges in most criminal cases release most of the time. Since Melville remains steadfast on most Jackson-related information, I figured I’d ask for Melville-related information. A case can easily be made that an abiding public interest exists in knowing how much public money Melville’s pulling down in exchange for keeping public information from the public. The more I thought about it, I wondered what other perks might go with the judicial job. How much does any county judge spend in reimbursable money for conferences, gas money, lunches and other judicial expenditures related to the performance of official duties? Melville’s secretary said the boss pays for his own lunches. Therefore, “no big deal.” “You’re barking up the wrong tree,” she said. I wasn’t barking. I was merely hounding the court. Citizens in Santa Barbara County need all the watchdogs they can get – Republicans, Democrats, independents and others – to help cast light on how every penny of taxpayers’ money is spent. Public accountability stems from public disclosure. Too many elected and appointed public officials are never asked for a dollar-and-cents breakdown of public performance and wind up living a charmed existence that allows them to operate in the shadows. I’m thrilled if there’s no such thing as a free lunch in the county judicial chambers. But you don’t know unless you ask, and asking about how public money is spent is part of the public service that newspapers provide. Getting the facts out of Melville has been tough lately. Because Melville has decided to seal records in an attempt to protect Jackson’s right to a fair trial, details about the case remain sketchy. Despite Wednesday’s limited release of information, the public still knows very little. So, in the spirit of free speech and open government, I figured the least I could do was tell you something – anything – about Melville’s court that you might not know. Melville’s salary is a good start. Exactly how much money does Melville receive as the county’s assistant presiding judge, who will become the county’s presiding judge in January? Melville’s secretary said she believes the salary to be about a hundred and some thousand dollars. Base salary for Superior Court judges is $143,838, although the range varies depending on judicial duties and the number of judges in the county, according to a spokeswoman for the Judicial Council of California. As presiding judge, Melville will receive $149,592, the spokeswoman said. Although I asked that Melville call me back with the exact numbers on his current paycheck, he didn’t call back. Neither did Superior Court Executive Officer Gary Blair. Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, did call back – with bad news. Scheer said that salaries aside, the judiciary in California is exempt from the public records act. “That means the kind of questions you can ask almost any other government agency in the state and expect to get an answer to – or even if you’re not going to get an answer voluntarily to be able to go to court and sue to force them to give you an answer – that whole set of rules does not apply to the courts, to the judiciary,” Scheer said. So the public is not entitled to know any real details about how Melville and his colleagues spend public money. And although judicial salaries are public record, I’m still trying to get an exact figure for Melville. We’ll just forget about the rest – for now. The law needs to be changed. I might even sue. On second thought, that’s a lousy idea. Some judge would probably seal the court record and slap a gag order on everybody just to show us who’s really in charge. * Steve Corbett’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at 739-2215 or e-mailed at Read Corbett online at July 8, 2004 :nav Source:

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