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Courthouse News Service v. Planet

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  1. Court Access
Courthouse News Service (CNS) challenged the policy of the Ventura County state court clerk of delaying disclosure of unlimited civil…

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 27 media organizations

Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Date Filed: July 7, 2017

Update: On Jan. 17, 2020, the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part the district court’s summary judgment in favor of Courthouse New Service. The Ninth Circuit held that the press has a qualified right of timely access to newly filed civil complaints that attaches when a complaint is filed and that Ventura County’s former no-access-before-processing policy violated the First Amendment right of access. However, the Ninth Circuit also held that Ventura County’s scanning policy passed constitutional scrutiny.

Background: In 2017, Courthouse News Service, a legal news organization, challenged the policy of the Ventura County state court clerk of delaying disclosure of unlimited civil complaints to the public. CNS filed suit in 2011, after the clerk of court denied CNS access to newly filed unlimited civil complaints until his staff completed the administrative tasks associated with processing the complaints (the “no-access-before-processing” policy).

While the case was pending, the clerk of court began scanning newly filed unlimited civil complaints and allowing them to be viewed on public terminals in the court’s Records Department before processing, but continued to deny access to complaints scanned after 3 p.m., when the Records Department closed, even though complaints could be filed until 4:30 p.m. (the “scanning policy”).

CNS argued that it has a constitutional right to timely access to legal complaints immediately after they are filed and that the Ventura County court’s “no-access-before-processing” policy and “scanning policy” violated that right. The clerk, Michael Planet, argued that the the First Amendment right of access does not attach to a civil complaint upon filing and that neither the   “no-access-before-processing” policy nor the “scanning policy” violate the First Amendment right of access to court documents.

After the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that CNS had a right of timely access to the civil complaints and that the Ventura County court’s policies violated that right, Planet appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit.

Our Position: The Ninth Circuit should affirm the lower court’s ruling that CNS has a right to timely access to civil complaints and that the Ventura County court’s policies violated that right. 

  • Because timeliness affects newsworthiness, prompt access promotes more accurate reporting and increased public understanding of the matters occupying the courts’ dockets.
  • Any information concerning CNS’s business model should have no bearing on the question of whether a constitutional violation occurred: A news organization’s for-profit status does not change the fundamental importance of the First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings and records.

Quote: “Prompt access to civil complaints ensures that the public learns about important cases while they are still newsworthy, promotes accuracy in reporting, and leads to more meaningful public debate about those cases.”

Related: Reporters Committee attorneys have filed three previous amicus briefs in this case: in the Central District of California in 2016; in the Ninth Circuit in 2014; and in the Ninth Circuit in 2012.

Reporters Committee attorneys have also filed four amicus briefs in CNS v. Yamasaki, another case about delayed access to civil complaints: in the Ninth Circuit in 2019 (final judgment); in the Central District of California in 2018 (application for leave to re-file its previously accepted amicus brief); in the Ninth Circuit in 2017 (preliminary injunction); and in the Central District of California in 2017.

Reporters Committee attorneys have also filed one amicus brief in CNS v. Brown, a similar case in the Seventh Circuit in 2018.