Fearing lawsuits, a state Senate committee agreed not to open files gathered in the 1950s and '60s on supposed Communists, material that one senator labeled as "garbage."

Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton on Monday told members of the Rules Committee, which he chairs, that the Legislature could make itself vulnerable to invasion of privacy suits from the people mentioned in the files or their families.The documents contain the names of 20,000 Californians investigated from 1940-71 for alleged "un-American activities," including union leaders, Hollywood figures, student protesters and government officials.

The files contain "garbage," "drivel" and "the rankest form of hearsay," said Burton, a San Francisco Democrat.

The Senate, however, could open the files if compelled to do so by a judge, he said. If a judge issued such a ruling, Burton told the committee, "the garbage is out, and we're off the hook."