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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Attorneys file federal class action lawsuit over PACER fees

In April, attorneys for several watchdog groups filed a class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the court’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system overcharged the public for access to court records starting in April 2010.

The lawsuit seeks “an unspecified amount of damages that ‘are found to exceed the amount authorized by law,’ as well as attorney fees.” Court documents and further details on the suit from the class action attorneys can be found here.

I was notified by email that I am a member of the plaintiff class, based on periodic PACER research I have conducted since 2010. And I have been critical of high PACER fees in the past, especially when PACER is used purely for academic research.  But this is a pretty silly lawsuit.  The class action attorneys will make a tidy sum from any settlement, and the actual affected members will likely get nothing of consequence.  I would much prefer to see the courts offer PACER as a free research service, or otherwise develop a sensible, tiered payment system.

 

 

Trial ends in civil rights case challenging Louisiana’s judicial election districts

We previously reported on a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by a local chapter of the NAACP, alleging that the state’s current at-large voting system for state judges disadvantages minority groups.  The plaintiffs are seeking to replace the current system with a system of five single-member districts, one of which would be drawn to include a majority of African-American and other minority groups among its residents.

A bench trial began in mid-March, and both parties rested their cases on Friday.  The Daily Comet, a local Louisiana newspaper, has a good wrap-up of the dramatic testimony on the final day.  The decision now rests with U.S. District Judge James Brady, who has instructed both sides to file post-trial briefs by June 8.  A decision is expected by August.

Minnesota judge loses constitutional challenge to state’s mandatory retirement age

Last summer, Minnesota District Judge Galen Vaa filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that its mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 was unconstitutional.  (Vaa is currently 69 and wants to keep working past next year.)  This week, another district judge in the state ruled against his claim, concluding that the state constitution authorized the legislature to set a mandatory retirement age.

Most states impose mandatory retirement ages between 70 and 75.  Judge Vaa plans to appeal the ruling.

UPDATE: Michigan lawmakers are considering eliminating that state’s mandatory retirement age for judges.  We’ll follow this development as well.

Trial begins in Louisiana judicial election voting rights case

In February 2014, the local branch of the NAACP in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, filed a federal civil rights action alleging that the system used to elect judges in the state’s 32nd Judicial District violated the federal Voting Rights and the U.S. Constitution.  More than three years and several procedural twists later, the case went to trial this week in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

Terrebonne Parish currently elects all five of its state judges using an “at-large” system, meaning that all judges are chosen by a parish-wide vote even though each judge presides over a specific division of the court.  Plaintiffs argue that this system disenfranchises minority voters, and are seeking to replace it with five judge-specific voting districts, one of which would be a minority district.

Aside from the substantive importance of the parties’ positions, this case is another interesting example of federal challenges to state judicial election practices.

Continue reading “Trial begins in Louisiana judicial election voting rights case”