In new lawsuit, court journalists allege that electronic case filing undermines transparency

The Courthouse News Service, a specialty news service focusing on civil cases across the United States, has sued the Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Clerk’s Office. The lawsuit alleges that the Clerk’s office is withholding information on new case filings from the public for days after the cases are filed. In particular, the suit claims that the Clerk’s office is not immediately disclosing some electronically filed complaints, even though those complaints should be public record as soon as they are filed.

The Cook County Record reports:

Under the old method, the lawsuit said, journalists working in the courthouse were able to freely access paper lawsuits as they were filed with the circuit clerk’s office, even before they entered the official intake process, as the courts considered such lawsuits public information from the moment they were dropped off at the clerk’s office, essentially making private disputes the public’s business.

However, as more and more lawsuits have been e-filed, CNS said the clerk’s office has withheld more and more of them, for days or weeks at a time, as they are administratively processed.

“These delays in access … is (sic) the result of the Clerk’s policy and practice of withholding new e-filed complaints from press review until after the performance of administrative processing, including post-filing ‘acceptance’ of the complaint, at which time the Clerk deems the complaint ‘officially filed,’” CNS wrote in its lawsuit. “The Clerk takes this position even though the applicable rules and orders provide that e-filed complaints received before midnight on a court day are ‘deemed filed’ on the date of receipt, even if they are not ‘officially’ accepted as filed until a later date…”

CNS noted this particularly allows plaintiffs’ lawyers to control the initial flow of information about their lawsuits, as they can spoon feed the complaints to news outlets they may consider more friendly or sympathetic, while other competing outlets wait days or weeks for access to the vital public documents associated with the case.

The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and names Cook County court clerk Dorothy Brown as a defendant. The case number is 1:17-cv-07933. Ironically, the Courthouse News Service does not seem to have uploaded the complaint to its own news website.

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