Courthouse News Wins Right to Timely Court Complaints

Courthouse News filed a complaint in 2011 against Michael D. Planet, in his official capacity as Court Executive Officer and Clerk of the Ventura County Superior Court. The case concerned the right to the news service’s timely access to court filings.  After nearly 10 years in court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted in part summary judgment for Courthouse News. 

When the complaint was originally filed in 2011, Ventura County used a “‘no-access-before-process’ policy pertaining to new civil complaints which often resulted in significant delays between the filing of a complaint and its availability to Courthouse News Service.” Under this policy, court personnel would need to process documents before they were available for public access.  In 2014, the no-access policy was replaced with a scanning policy, which required court staff to scan the documents before reviewing or processing them; anything filed after 4pm was available the next day.  The district court ruled that both policies unconstitutionally infringed Courthouse News’ right to access complaints in a timely manner.

 The Ninth Circuit opinion affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s grant of summary judgment. Judge Wardlaw stated “[t]his case pits the urgency of reporting on, and the public interest in obtaining, contemporaneous news about filings in our courts against administrative interests in the fair and orderly processing of those filings.” The need for immediate coverage is more acute with the advent online news coverage. As a result, news agencies should have timely access to court filings, within reason. The court stated that “the press has a qualified right of timely access to newly filed civil nonconfidential complaints that attaches when the complaint is filed. However, this does not entitle the press to immediate access to those complaints.”

The court stated that denying timely access to public proceedings and documents would damage Courthouse News’ First Amendment rights. “Absent a showing that there is a substantial interest in retaining the private nature of a judicial record, once documents have been filed in judicial proceedings, a presumption arises that the public has the right to know the information they contain.”

The court stated that “the qualified right of access to nonconfidential civil complaints arises when they are filed with the court, we do not view that conclusion as demanding immediate, pre-processing access to newly filed complaints…[however, there] is a right to timely access.” A delay for the “fair and orderly administration of justice” is valid. The order stated that “[t]he First Amendment does not require courts, public entities with limited resources, to set aside their judicial operational needs to satisfy the immediate demands of the press.”

Planet failed to provide examples where providing access to unprocessed filings “compromised the quality and accuracy of information,” nor did they provide examples of efficiency problems caused by pre-processing access. The court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Courthouse News as to the no-access-before-process policy.  However, the decision was reversed as to the scanning policy.

Courthouse News was represented by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. Michael D. Planet is represented by Jones Day and Hayes Law Office.