Maine Newspapers and National Legal Department Continue Legal Fight for Faster Access to Civil Complaints
Maine newspapers and a national legal news service are again trying to gain faster public access to civil complaints filed in the state’s electronic court records system.
Courthouse News Service, a national media outlet that reports on civil court proceedings, filed a federal lawsuit last year challenging a rule that would have allowed civil cases filed online to be kept from the public for weeks. , even months after they were filed. The companies that own the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit, as is the Bangor Daily News.
Less than three weeks after the lawsuit was filed, Maine’s judicial branch changed direction on the rule. The rule now states that civil complaints will be available online after they have been processed by the clerks. The state then filed a motion saying the matter had been resolved, and U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen agreed to dismiss the case.
But news organizations have argued that even a delay in processing time could violate their rights under the First Amendment, which guarantees the media and the public the ability to review and copy these recordings. They asked the 1st Court of Appeals for the US Circuit in Boston to overturn Torresen’s decision. A panel of three appellate judges heard oral arguments in the case on Wednesday.
“This court should consider that the public and the press have a right to timely access to newly filed civil complaints,” said attorney Barbara Smith, representing the media companies. Smith defined “timely access” as when a clerk’s office receives the complaint and not after the clerk has performed “departmental” tasks like reviewing the complaint for bar numbers and lawyers’ signatures.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Knowlton told the appeals court on Wednesday that the Maine judiciary agreed with the district court’s dismissal decision and that the Maine courts had struck a balance between the rights of the press of the First Amendment and the need to screen and verify court documents.
Maine is in a years-long process to move court records from paper records to digital records. In November 2020, Bangor Courts became the first to begin using the electronic system to file and view cases. Deployment to other courts is ongoing.
Most of the questions from the 1st Circuit judges on Wednesday focused on the appropriate level of screening before filings are made public, and how that differs in an electronic system from a traditional paper-based system still used by most states.
“I’m still trying to figure out what you consider an authorized level of screening before it gets released to the press. I mean, there has to be some sort of screening,” Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson said.
The lawsuit applies to Penobscot County Superior Court and Bangor District Court, both of which are participating in a e-filing pilot project for civil and family matters.
It is unclear when the court will issue a decision on the appeal.
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