Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Court Revives Suit Over Same-Day Access to Trial Court Filings
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A federal district judge erred in abstaining from hearing a lawsuit challenging a state superior court policy denying the press and public same-day access to newly filed civil complaints, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
“This case presents an important First Amendment question…that should be decided by the federal courts…,” Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the panel, adding that the injunctive and declaratory relief sought by plaintiff Courthouse News Service “would not excessively intrude on sensitive state functions.”
CNS sued Ventura Superior Court Executive Officer/Clerk Michael Planet in 2011. It contended that a series of policy changes initiated by the court since 2008 had made it increasingly difficult for the service to report in a timely manner on new suits filed in the court.
No Access Problems
CNS—which provides information on trial and appellate-level civil cases to thousands of subscribers, and to the general public via its website, and whose reports periodically appear in the MetNews—said that from 2001, when it first began covering the Ventura court, to 2008, it was able to obtain access to the vast majority of general civil filings on the day of filing or shortly thereafter.
But by the time the lawsuit was filed, the complaint alleged, the court was no longer providing access to new complaints until they were fully processed, which CNS said was taking up to 34 days.
The defense responded that budget cuts had made it impossible to complete case processing and make the filings available to the press within the timeframes that had previously been commonplace.
Planet asked the court to dismiss the suit for failure to state a cause of action or to abstain from hearing it under Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941), and O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488 (1974). The cases hold that a federal court may decline to hear a suit against state or local officials despite having jurisdiction, if a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could harm significant interests of the state.
U.S. District Judge Manuel Real granted abstention on the First Amendment claim, and did not reach the merits.
He dismissed a separate claim, for violation of the California Rules of Court, based on U.S. Supreme Court authority that protects state and local officials from being sued in federal court for violating state law, even when that claim is factually related to a claim for violation of federal law. CNS did not appeal that portion of the ruling.
Wardlaw, writing for the Ninth Circuit, explained that the Pullman abstention, despite its “ignominious origins”—the Supreme Court relied on the doctrine to avoid the “sensitive” issue of whether Texas could require that railroad sleeper cars be placed under the supervision of conductors, who were all white, rather than porters, who were all black—remains a valid doctrine.
The Ninth Circuit, however, has never approved use of the doctrine when First Amendment issues are involved, except in one “procedurally aberrant” case, the judge said. And she emphatically rejected the court executive’s argument that access-to-information cases should be treated differently than those involving “free expression.”
“CNS’s First Amendment right of access claim falls within the general rule against abstaining under Pullman in First Amendment cases. CNS’s right of access claim implicates the same fundamental First Amendment interests as a free expression claim, and it equally commands the respect and attention of the federal courts.”
No Ruling on Merits
The judge emphasized that the court was not ruling on the merits of the claim, leaving the defendant free to argue on remand that there are countervailing interests that justify the court’s limitations on access.
But she also noted that all of California’s federal district courts make a large majority of their civil complaints available to the press on the day they are filed, as do several superior courts, in some cases by allowing press access after the court has closed to the public for the day or by adjusting work schedules so employees are available to assist the media in viewing complaints.
Judge Mary Murguia and Senior Judge John Noonan concurred in the opinion.
CNS editor Bill Gildner, in an interview published on the service’s website, tied the processing delays and change in access policies to the adoption by certain courts, including Ventura, of the now-defunded Central Case Management System.
The changes killed news reporting on new filings for most journalists and newspapers, Girdner said.
"Ventura County, supported by the Administrative Office of the Courts, is delaying access to newly filed complaints, and that delay is killing the news value of the coverage and ultimately damaging the First Amendment rights of the press and of the public," Girdner said.
The case is Courthouse News Service v. Planet, 11-57187.
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