Media Victory in Ventura Court Open Records Dispute

The publisher of daily legal news has won a significant open access ruling in a fight with the Ventura County court clerk over long delays in providing access to newly filed court records.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that media access to state court records is a clear First Amendment issue and timely access to records is a key to free expression.

Courthouses News Service sued Ventura for same-day access to court filings after the countySuperior Court ended its long-standing same-day access and withheld newly filed complaints from the public until they were “processed,” which sometimes took days or weeks.

The decision reinstates the CNS lawsuit seeking an injunction to require Ventura County Court Clerk Michael Planet to provide same-day access to newly filed civil complaints

It reverses a decision by U.S. District Judge Manuel Real in Los Angeles to abstain from interfering in the Ventura clerk’s decision and dismiss the CNS complaint because it involved “sensitive state functions.”

“The news media’s right of access to judicial proceedings is essential not only to its own free expression, but also to the public’s,” Judge Kim Wardlaw wrote.

Although many state and federal courts provide reporters same-day access to court filings prior to processing them, in 2008 Ventura implemented changes that made review of new civil complaints more difficult, including a rule that limited the reporter to viewing 25 complaints a day, according to the court.

Although CNS worked out an informal arrangement to view cases, it was not adhered to and soon complaints were withheld until fully processed, in some instances taking up to 34 days.

Ventura argued the CNS complaint was not a “free expression” case but simply the government declining to make information it possesses available to the public.

CNS asserted it had a First Amendment right of access to judicial and other public proceedings.

In siding with CNS, Wardlaw wrote, “The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that access to public proceedings and records is an indispensable predicate to free expression about the workings of government.”

She said Real’s abstention from ruling on the CNS claim “also risks harming the public’s First Amendment interests.  If CNS’s protected expression is delayed while the litigation proceeds in state court, then the expression of the newspapers, lawyers, libraries, and others who rely on CNS for information will also be stifled.”

The panel ordered the case back to Real in Los Angeles to consider the CNS injunction request.

Case: Courthouse News Service v. Planet, No. 11-57187

 

 

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