If justice delayed is justice denied, is access delayed to court records access denied—contrary to the First Amendment? That’s the position taken by Courthouse News Service in its federal court lawsuit against the clerk of the Ventura County Superior Court, which it says is often days, even weeks late in allowing the public to see newly filed cases. Reporting for Courthouse News Service, Bill Girdner explains that the defendant blames the lag on processes made necessary by the new statewide court information system.
Ventura’s court clerk was sued Thursday by Courthouse News Service over delays in press access to newly filed cases, a frequent source of news. The delays in Ventura stand in stark contrast to the same-day access to new lawsuits provided by federal courts and big state courts throughout the nation.
“By denying Courthouse News timely access to newly-filed civil unlimited jurisdiction complaints, these records are as good as sealed for an appreciable time after filing, in violation of the rights secured to Courthouse News by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, federal common law, and the California Rules of Court,” said the complaint.
The complaint said the news service has tried to work with the clerk, Michael Planet, to no avail.
Courthouse News is represented by Rachel Matteo-Boehm, David Greene and Leila Knox out of the San Francisco office of Holme Roberts & Owen.
The complaint noted that the press has access to only 6% of the new cases on the day they are filed in Ventura, only 14% can be seen the next day and review of fully 80% of the new cases is delayed between three days and a month. The superior court in Ventura is one of only four in the state to fully adopt a problem-plagued case management system sponsored by the bureaucracy that oversees California’s courts.
As part of that system, Ventura’s clerk requires that a host of “processing” tasks be completed before a journalist can see the new cases.
“Defendant simply does not have the authority to declare that newly filed complaints are off limits until he determines, exercising his unbridled discretion, that the press and public may see them,” said the memorandum of points and authorities that accompanied the news service’s complaint. “And even if he somehow had that authority, he would be required to exercise it consistent with the First Amendment right of access. But he has not even come close.”
In contrast to Ventura, federal courts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego, and state courts such as those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Contra Costa and Riverside give journalists access to review a large majority of cases on the same-day they are filed.
The complaint against Ventura makes the point that the news is perishable and readers are less and less interested in events the more they recede into the past. So that by the time Ventura allows news reporters to look the cases over, they are old and stale news.
Los Angeles Superior Court, which dwarfs every court in the nation in terms of the sheer volume of cases handled, gives journalists the chance to review nearly all the new cases that have come in that day by the end of the day, and a wide range of journalists use that excellent access to cover a potent source of news.
The website for the plaintiff, Courthouse News, surpassed one million independent readers per month in September, and stories tied to newly filed actions have generated hundreds of thousands of readers. News sources as varied as CNN and the Los Angeles rock station KROQ cite the news service’s articles.
“In recognition of the crucial role played by the media to inform interested persons about new court cases, it has been a longstanding tradition for courts to provide reporters who visit the court every day with access to that day’s new civil complaints at the end of the day on which they are filed,” said the complaint. “This same-day access ensures that interested members of the public learn about new cases while they are still newsworthy.”
Court clerk Planet refused a request for prompt press access by referring to budget cutbacks, suggesting that access costs money. However, press access at its core involves little more than opening a door to let journalists see new filings.
For example, after years of failed negotiations between the press and court officials in Riverside Superior Court, a new clerk was able to provide same-day access without spending extra money, primarily by adjusting work schedules.
“At bottom, access is largely a matter of will,” said the plaintiff’s points and authorities. “As shown by the variety and effectiveness of the procedures for providing same-day access that have been implemented in so many courts, any individual clerk’s office can provide prompt access to newly filed complaints if it has the will to do so.”
Matteo-Boehm, representing the news service, argued that the open form of government that is fundamental to our nation would be undercut if court clerks could decide on their own when they thought a new filing should be public.
“The public’s right of access to court proceedings and records is a keystone of our democratic system,” she said.
“Under the First Amendment, clerks cannot bar public access to new complaints, even for limited times, unless sufficiently compelling interests justify withholding those complaints,” she said.
“Prompt access to new complaints is of obvious concern to the news media, whose role it is to inform other interested members of the public of the new action and the factual and legal allegations while it is still newsworthy,” said Matteo-Boehm. “Prompt access is essential to the public’s ability to oversee the activities of an important branch of government while those activities are still current.”
The news service is asking a federal judge to find Planet’s policy invalid and order him to provide prompt press access to the court’s new matters.