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Courthouse News Service v. Smith

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  1. Court Access

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

Date Filed: Feb. 10, 2023

Background: In Virginia, members of the public, including the press, can access civil judicial records of the state circuit courts by visiting a courthouse and viewing them on a public access terminal. However, access to those same records using the court system’s online judicial records portal — known as the Officer of the Court Remote Access, or OCRA — is limited to Virginia-licensed attorneys and select government agencies.

Courthouse News Service, which reports on civil cases in all 50 states, including Virginia, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging that the OCRA non-attorney access restriction is an unconstitutional speaker-based restriction on speech that violates the press and the general public’s presumptive right of contemporaneous access to civil court records under the First Amendment.

The district court denied the news organization’s motion for summary judgment and entered summary judgment in favor of the Clerk of the Circuit Court for Prince William County and the Commonwealth of Virginia. CNS appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Our Position: The Fourth Circuit should reverse the district court’s decision.

  • The restriction on remote access to judicial records substantially burdens the public’s presumptive constitutional right to inspect civil court records, and impairs the news media’s ability to report on court cases of public interest.
  • The non-attorney access restriction is a speaker-based restriction on speech that violates the First Amendment.

Quote: “The ability to access non-confidential civil court records remotely through OCRA would aid the news media in covering court proceedings across the Commonwealth and, ultimately, make for a more informed public. Denying the press and the greater public access to OCRA undermines the important public policy goals underlying the presumption of public access to court records and hampers the news media’s ability to keep the public informed.”

Related: The Reporters Committee has previously filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Courthouse News Service lawsuits successfully challenging court system rules delaying access to newly filed civil complaints, including in Courthouse News Service v. Gabel, Courthouse News Service v. Glessner, and Courthouse News Service v. Schaefer.

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