AAN Argues for Prompt Access to Civil Complaints

march 30, 2016  11:30 am
We all know the wheels of justice move slowly. AAN recently joined an amicus brief filed in a case which shows just that – in two different ways (both the sheer length of time it has taken for this case to be resolved and in the main issue in the case, regarding the need for immediate access to court filings).

The case is Courthouse News Service v. Planet and it’s now bounced between the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on several occasions. But everything stems from a Ventura County, Calif., Superior Court (a California state court) policy to not release filed documents for public inspection until after the court completes its processing of those documents, a process that may take several days.

The Courthouse News Service was seeking access to a complaint filed in a civil proceeding soon after it was filed. Courthouse News filed an action in federal court to compel immediate or near-immediate access, claiming that the delay violates the public’s and press’ First Amendment-based right of public access. The U.S. District Court dismissed the case, holding that federal courts should not interfere with state court proceedings; three more decisions followed:
  • The case was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which reversed the District Court’s ruling and ordered the lower court to consider the First Amendment right of access. However, the Ninth Circuit did not itself rule that a right of access exists.

  • The case went back to the federal District Court which held that there is no constitutional or other right of access to complaints when filed, and that the right attaches only when the complaint is first subject to a hearing to which the public has a First Amendment access right.

  • The case then went back to the Ninth Circuit, where we joined a brief filed in support of Courthouse News. The Ninth Circuit once again overturned the district court judge, this time by simply pointing out that the judge had not followed the appellate court's instruction to carefully follow the Press-Enterprise standard regarding access. The panel went so far as to order the district court clerk to assign it to a different judge on remand, to "preserve the appearance of justice."

We are now back at the District Court for a third time where both parties are filing motions for summary judgment.

This isn’t the first time we’ve participated in this case. Once again we have aligned with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who filed a brief on behalf of itself, AAN and 11 other media organizations. The brief explains the news media's interest in having prompt access to civil complaints. It explains that a civil complaint is one of the most important documents filed in a civil lawsuit as it articulates the issues to be litigated. Thus, this filing is clearly covered by the First Amendment right of access from the moment it is filed. That is why the Ninth Circuit has already held that even a 48 hour delay in unsealing a civil complaint may be unconstitutional.

It also notes that, from a journalism perspective, quick – same day – access to court records is important. News moves quickly; stories will be written the day a case is filed. The fact that a complaint is not available simply means that reporters will be forced to rely on less trustworthy secondary sources for information: “timely access to court documents makes reporting more accurate, fair and complete and should be encouraged by courts.” The news media must report on events using the best information available to it in a timely manner. Other courts have recognized the importance of timely access, equating undue delay in access to complete suppression.

Finally, the brief also explains how reporters and readers benefit from use of actual court documents, citing work from longtime reporters who covered courts. Those reporters stress the need to be accurate with regard to the information presented about the case, which can only come from reading court documents for themselves. This, in turn, better informs the public on matters of public concern. As the brief notes, civil cases are important. Almost 200,000 civil complaints were filed in California in fiscal year 2013-2014, most of which will be in the court system for almost 2 years. The state will spend considerable financial resources to administer justice, and the public needs to be able to oversee that extensive use of public money.

Though this case is only at the District Court level it is important with regard to the press and public’s access to court records. This is especially true in California but also throughout the other states within the Ninth Circuit.