California Secretary Of State Inadvertently Releases Records Of Forced Sterilizations

Allen Matkins

Allen Matkins

The first law signed by California's first Governor, Peter Burnett, was the The Act Concerning the Public Archives (Chapter 1, Statutes of 1850). The act instructed the Secretary of State, William Van Voorhies, to classify and safely keep government records in his office.  Since that time, a division of the Office of the Secretary of State, the State Archives, has continued to follow those early instructions by providing a repository for the state's permanent governmental records as well as other materials documenting California history.  

Government Code Section 12237(a) provides that "any provision of law that exempts from public disclosure any item in the custody of the State Archives shall not apply to that item 75 years after the item was created, irrespective of the origin of the item, the manner in which it was deposited with the State Archives, or any other condition or circumstance at the time the item was deposited".   As a results records created before 1948 are effectively public while later records may be exempted from disclosure pursuant to the California Public Records Act, Cal. Gov't Code § 7920.000 et seq.

Last Friday, the Secretary of State announced that it had inadvertently released records to researcher with respect to a forced sterilization program conducted in the state for seven decades (1909-1970).  The records provided to the researcher included records dated from 1948-1954.  According to the Secretary of State, the records included:

  • Patient first and last names
  • Family member first and last names
  • Dates of Birth for some individuals
  • Familial history and familial medical history
  • Medical information such as diagnosis, dates of operations, dates of sterilization and other unrelated medical history

The Secretary of State states that "upon recognizing the age of the records, they notified SOS’ Archives staff immediately, and deleted any material from their computer".  The Secretary of State believes "it is unlikely that there will be any further unauthorized disclosure" and states that she has "no evidence that there has been any use or attempted use of the information compromised by this incident".  The Secretary of State's office has also provided these FAQs.  

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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