Court: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
Date Filed: July 6, 2020
Update: On June 24, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision, holding that the press and public enjoy a First Amendment right of access to newly filed civil complaints that “requires courts to make newly filed civil complaints available as expeditiously as possible.”
Background: Courthouse News Service, which covers civil litigation in state and federal courts, filed a lawsuit against two Virginia circuit courts after their clerks began delaying access to newly filed civil complaints in 2018. The filing delays prevented the legal news service and other news organizations from reporting on litigation in a timely fashion.
In January 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in favor of CNS, holding that the clerks deprived the news service of its First Amendment right to contemporaneously access newly filed civil complaints. The clerks have appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Our Position: The Fourth Circuit should affirm the district court’s judgment.
- Timely access to civil complaints before processing benefits the public and the press. It increases news value, enhances accuracy, and fosters public understanding about judicial processes.
- The First Amendment requires contemporaneous access to civil complaints.
Quote: “Journalists need timely access to civil complaints. Because freshness and speed are key aspects of the news business, delay can result in a complete denial of meaningful access, both for reporters and for the members of the public who rely on the press for information. 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: The Reporters Committee frequently files friend-of-the-court briefs regarding public access to court documents, including in many cases involving CNS. In 2017, the Reporters Committee filed multiple briefs supporting CNS in its challenge of a Ventura County, California, policy that delayed the disclosure of civil proceedings.