The California Supreme Court today ruled unanimously that the Department of Public Health must release, in full, public records relating to violations at state-run facilities for people with developmental disabilities.

The ruling means that the public will get a detailed look at abuses, ranging from neglect to sexual assault, that have occurred inside these facilities. For three and a half years, The Center for Investigative Reporting has been working to get the state to turn over complete records on the serious violations issued to developmental centers.

“It’s a complete victory for patients, families and the public, who are now going to get key information about serious violations of law and even egregious abuse,” said CIR lawyer Duffy Carolan of Jassy Vick Carolan LLP. “Through access to these citations, the public is going to hold the Department of Public Health, the Department of Developmental Services and the facilities accountable for what transpired at the facilities.”

In May 2011, reporter Ryan Gabrielson filed a Public Records Act request for serious violations issued by the state to developmental centers. Gabrielson was trying to figure out what kinds of cases the facilities’ in-house police departments were supposed to be investigating. The project that followed, Broken Shield, examined the failures of this police force to protect developmentally disabled people.

In response to the records request, the Department of Public Health heavily redacted the 55 citations it turned over to Gabrielson. The redacted records did not specify the actual violation, nor the circumstances surrounding it.

Underneath the blackouts, Gabrielson knew there would be details about assaults, rapes and at least one suspicious death.

The department argued that a law protecting people with developmental and mental disabilities, known as the Lanterman Act, allowed them to withhold almost all the specific information about the violations.

However, a different law says the exact opposite. The Long-Term Care Act requires citations for the most serious violations to be posted publicly in care facilities for inspection by staff, residents and visitors. It also requires the citations to be available for inspection by any other member of the public.

The idea is to make sure everyone knows how the facility is performing.

Both the Lanterman Act and the Long-Term Care Act have the same goal – to protect the state’s most vulnerable people. The case centered on which law would prevail.

In January 2012, CIR’s lawyers filed a petition with Sacramento County Superior Court. The trial court sided with CIR and ruled in favor of full disclosure. It said the Department of Public Health must release the citations in full, with the exception of patient names.

The department immediately filed a writ with the state Court of Appeals. The next year, the appeals court more or less sided with CIR but it also raised a new issue. Rather than say one law took precedence over the other, it tried to reconcile the two. The appeals court’s majority opinion said citations must be disclosed, but certain information about patients’ mental and physical condition and history can be withheld at the discretion of the department.

CIR decided that wasn’t good enough. Understanding the patient’s condition is vital to understanding the severity of the violation. Take, for example, the developmentally disabled people who were Tasered by a member of one developmental center’s in-house police force. Through Gabrielson’s reporting, we know many of those people didn’t have verbal communication skills. That fact could be withheld under the appeals court’s ruling,

But knowing that fact puts the situation in an entirely new light: A person who can’t speak won’t be able to tell an officer why he’s acting a certain way or why he can’t comply with the officer’s commands.

In November 2013, Carolan filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court. The petition was granted, and the justices heard the case in December.

The Supreme Court’s ruling says that the Long-Term Care Act is both more recent and more specific than the Lanterman Act. Therefore, it takes precedence. Furthermore, the court found that the state Legislature has indicated its intent more than once that these citations are meant to be public.

“Accordingly, DPH (Department of Public Health) citations issued under the Long-Term Care Act are public records and must be disclosed to the Center subject only to the specific redactions mandated by the Long-Term Care Act,” the opinion says.

Read the California Supreme Court’s full opinion here.

“The real winners here are some of the most vulnerable people in our society, patients in state hospitals who are mentally ill and developmentally disabled,” said Robert J. Rosenthal, CIR’s executive director. “While they may not be able to protect their own interests, this decision means journalists, family members and those who work on their behalf will be able to better hold accountable those responsible for their care.”

Rachael Bale is a reporter and researcher for The Center for Investigative Reporting. Previously, she worked at KQED in San Francisco and The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism nonprofit in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaign finance in the 2012 election. A California native, she has a bachelor's degree in political science from Reed College and a master's degree in journalism from American University.