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Jones v. Professional Background Screening Association

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  1. Court Access

Amicus brief filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 24 media organizations

Court: Supreme Court of Arkansas

Date Filed: June 8, 2020

Background: In 2018, a member of the Professional Background Screening Association, a nonprofit trade association that represents companies conducting employment and tenant background checks, submitted a records request to the District Court of Benton County, Arkansas, under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The requester asked for “all court records” related to a specific individual that the company wished to screen.

Jennifer Jones, the court’s clerk, denied the request, citing an Arkansas Supreme Court rule, Order 19, that governs access to court records. Among other things, Order 19 imposes fees, requirements, and a mandatory license agreement on anyone seeking “compiled information,” which the rule defines as “information that is derived from the selection, aggregation or reformulation of information from more than one court record.” Jones claimed that Order 19’s provision regarding “compiled information” applied to the court records the PBSA member sought.

PBSA sued Jones, arguing that access to the court records sought is governed by the Arkansas FOIA and the First Amendment, and seeking an injunction restricting Jones from violating Arkansas FOIA and the First Amendment right of access to court records by invoking Order 19’s restrictions on access to compiled information in response to requests for existing court records about an individual.

Both PBSA and Jones filed competing motions for summary judgment. The trial court reached a mixed decision. It ordered Jones to fulfill the records request, as it ruled that the request fell under Arkansas FOIA, did not seek “compiled information,” and was therefore not subject to Order 19’s provisions regarding compiled information. However, because the trial court found that Arkansas FOIA “drives this case,” it also dismissed the claim that Jones’ interpretation of Order 19 violated First Amendment rights and federal common law. It also declined to issue an injunction against Jones with respect to any future requests by PBSA.

Both parties appealed to the Supreme Court of Arkansas.

Our Position: The Supreme Court of Arkansas should affirm the trial court’s entry of partial summary judgment for PBSA and reverse the trial court’s entry of partial summary judgment for the court clerk.

  • Journalists rely on criminal court documents, including docket sheets, charging instruments, and documents reflecting the disposition of criminal charges, to report on issues relevant to the public.
  • The First Amendment and common law grant the public a right of access to both judicial proceedings and court records in criminal cases.
  • The Court should interpret Order 19 according to its plain language. Treating requests for access to existing judicial records related to an individual as requests for “compiled information” would burden or conflict with the exercise of First Amendment rights by subjecting requesters to fees, restrictions, and registration requirements.

Quote: “[P]ublic access to criminal court records — including docket sheets, charging instruments, and records reflecting the disposition of criminal cases — is essential to reporting that informs the public about criminal cases and the criminal justice system as a whole.”