Courthouse News Service’s Quest for Timely Release of Court Filings

Courthouse News Service, an online publication that focuses specifically on litigation in civil court, is doing a huge favor to everyone whose work include reading court documents that are released by the courtsby urging clerks on time to allow them to be released.

The magazine has filed lawsuits against court clerks from various areas over the past few years. The lawsuits claim that delaying in the release of newly filed cases to the public as well as to journalists violate The First Amendment. It is perhaps not surprising that a majority of judges are in agreement.

Courthouse News started filing lawsuits following reports that its journalists noticed the delays that occurred in the year 2017. One jurisdiction’s monitoring revealed that just 19% of lawsuits were made available to the public at the time when they filed.

It is doubtful that the delays were conceived as deliberate foot-dragging particularly in light of the judiciary’s demands for more funds to deal with the increasing volume of work. But, this case brings to mind a fascinating question: When does the delay in obtaining court papers online infringe on constitutional rights under the First Amendment?

Right of Public Access Right of Public Access

Public access rights has been in place since back to the days of common law as well as it is the Supreme Court has acknowledged that rights time and time. The year 1986 was the first time SCOTUS confirmed in the Press Enterprise Co. (v.). Superior Courtthat the First Amendment guarantees the right to access to court proceedings and documents which “have always been available to the media” and in which the public’s access “plays an essential function” in the operation of the legal process.

The two sides are in agreement that there exists a limited First Amendment right of public access to complaints that have been filed. They disagree about the time when this right is applicable. Courthouse News argues that public access rights are activated after a complaint has been made. However, court clerks from the First Circuit contend that reporters can access documents after they’ve been dealt with.

First Circuit Reporters Complain About “Stale” Coverage

In April this year, The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals returned Courthouse News’ case against court clerks from Bangor, Maine, who claimed to have waited for up to three days before releasing the latest complaints. As the head of CN’s Bill Girdner put it, “the information they provided was as old-fashioned as bread.”

The time delay was built into the pilot electronic filing system for Maine that initially demanded court clerks to block the public from viewing new cases for three days following the time the defendant has been served. The court clerks were required examine a range of information prior to formatting complaints to be viewed online and publishing the complaints.

In February 2021 Courthouse News and a group of local papers filed suit for damages, and the court removed the delay from its regulations. The court did not mention how long it would take for clerks to provide new filings.

The court of district appeals dismissed the amended complaint of Courthouse News for lack of an allegation. In March 2022 the First Circuit revived the case and returned the case back for a state courts. Courthouse News will still have to show their case However, they’re most likely to feel assured after winning on the Fourth Circuit last year.

Significant Fourth Circuit Victory

In July 2021 Courthouse News scored a big victory in Courthouse News’ victory in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding this issue. The panel of appeals ruled that the clerks at courts in Virginia did not release newly filed civil cases “timely accessible” to the media as well as the general public, in violation of rights under the First Amendment right of access to documents that are public. Additionally it was found that Fourth Circuit affirmed Fourth Circuit affirmed the district judge’s decision that clerks of the court have to make civil lawsuits available on the day they’re filed, or in the case of the latter, by the conclusion of the following day of court.

A number of well-known news outlets have signed an amicus brief in support of Courthouse News in the Fourth Circuit lawsuit, which includes The Associated Press, the Boston Globe, Politico, and the New York Times. While we understand the issues that can arise when the publishing of content on the internet and in court, the judge Ralph Erickson of the Eighth Circuit described the situation very well when he dealt with an additional Courthouse News lawsuit:

“For around 230 years, you could go to the Missouri courthouse, and into the clerk’s office and say, “Hey could I look up what’s recorded today?’ but suddenly it’s impossible to.”

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