AAN Argues for Maximum and Immediate Access to Documents Filed in Civil Courts

AAN joined 25 other media organizations and companies on an amicus brief intended to ensure maximum and immediate access to documents filed in civil courts. In Courthouse News Service v. Planet, the Ventura County, Calif., Superior Court (a California state court) withheld from public inspection certain records filed with the court until after the court completed its processing of those documents — a process that may often take several days. Courthouse News was specifically seeking a complaint filed in a civil proceeding soon after it was filed.

Courthouse News filed an action in federal court, claiming that the delay violated its First Amendment-based right of public access. The trial court dismissed the case, holding that federal courts should not interfere with state court proceedings. The case was appealed to the United States 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 there was such a right. 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.

AAN and the other media groups who joined the brief drafted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press obviously disagree that a complaint only becomes public when a hearing is held. We argue that documents should become publicly accessible upon filing. We point out that there is a First Amendment-based right of access to civil complaints and it attaches when the complaint is filed. The civil complaint is the most important document in the life of a lawsuit. It prompts the lawsuit and shapes everything that comes afterward. Even the Ventura County Superior Court’s own rules acknowledge this. The right of access is clear and can only be exercised if it exists immediately.

The brief extensively explains how news media benefit from a prompt right of access. Without immediate access, reporters who learn about a case filing must rely on rumors to fuel their reporting – or press releases from the parties themselves. Reporters need the source document themselves to accurately describe what claims have been filed and who they have been filing against. This is even more vital in the digital era. The brief notes that news moves not in days or hours but minutes or seconds: “If courts do not make complaints available to the news media when they are most newsworthy, and wait days or weeks after they are filed to make them available, the accuracy of initial reports may be compromised, the information may lose news value over time, and the public may have already made judgments about the stories and underlying issues based on incomplete information.”

The brief also explains how access to civil lawsuits is important to the public. There were over 900,000 new civil filings in California in 2012-2013, including almost 200,000 new civil complaints. Most cases run for multiple years and, collectively, result in billions in damages. California’s judicial branch received $ 3.3 billion from the state’s budget, so residents have a significant interest in knowing every move that happens in those courts. While the District Court opined that civil complaints themselves shed no light on the administration of justice, our belief is to the contrary: researchers study them to determine trends in litigation, the public learns of conflicts in their communities, citizens may learn of legal rights they were previously unaware of (or cases they may need to become a part of) and, quite often, the filing of the cases themselves, regardless of the merits behind the suit, is news. The brief gives one specific example of the importance of immediate access to complaints: after the Newtown, CT shootings, the lawyer for the family of a girl who witnessed the shooting but did not die sued the school district for $ 100 million. Public outcry led to the suit being withdrawn just 2 days later.

This is a case involving a First Amendment issue that has reached a prominent federal court whose decisions often have wide-ranging impact. Our argument for immediate access to government information is transferrable to virtually every document our members seek from not just the judicial, but all branches of federal, state and local governments. Increasingly, time is of the essence to our members; that is why AAN is speaking out on your behalf in favor of immediate access to civil court complaints.

Please contact AAN Legal Counsel Kevin M. Goldberg at 703-812-0462 or goldberg@fhhlaw.com if you have any questions.