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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D.C. Circuit allows live broadcast of oral argument for first time in sixteen years

This morning, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit  permitted a live audio feed of an oral argument in Garza v. Hargen, a case involving whether the government should allow an undocumented teenage immigrant to obtain an abortion. It was the first live broadcast in the D.C. Circuit since a 2001 hearing in the Microsoft antitrust suit. Chief Judge Merrick Garland permitted the live stream in response to a request from the transparency group Fix the Court.

Although the argument itself has come and gone, the audio is available on the court’s website.

On courtroom cameras, states continue to lead the way

As the United States Supreme Court begins another Term this month, calls for the Court to open its oral arguments to cameras are getting louder. The Court has traditionally brushed off these demands, and there is little reason to believe that it will respond differently this year. But there is yet hope for supporters of court transparency: the state courts continue to lead the way in allowing broadcasts of courtroom proceedings.  Two examples from just this week illustrate the point:

Continue reading “On courtroom cameras, states continue to lead the way”

Maine courts plan to digitize court files but not post them online

Maine is undertaking a $15 million program to digitize its court records, but some of those records will only be available to those who physically travel to the courthouse.  The story and commentary can be found here.

Barring an order to seal the records, they really should be made publicly available online.

Justice Breyer appears on television to explain why the Supreme Court should not be on television

Justice Stephen Breyer appeared on a television interview with CBS This Morning‘s Norah O’Donnell last Thursday night, portions of which were shown on the television program on Friday morning. Breyer argued that cameras should not be placed in the Court in part because it could change the behavior of lawyers or Justices during argument. The full transcript and some video is here.

This is a silly position. Perhaps cameras would affect behavior a bit, but that change would be marginal at best. The Supreme Court already (and thankfully) has live audiences for its oral arguments — is a lawyer arguing before the Court and more than a hundred observers really likely to be affected by the presence of a camera or two? Nor have the Justices shown any individual reticence to talk to large crowds, or in front of cameras.

Maybe the Supreme Court should just hold its oral arguments in a private room, with only counsel attending, lest the presence of anyone else in the room make the Justices uncomfortable. Or maybe they should embrace the transparency in adjudication that historically has made the United States judicial system the envy of the world.

Class action lawsuit over PACER fees survives motion to dismiss

A federal court in Miami has denied the U.S. government’s motion to dismiss a putative class action alleging that users of the federal courts’ electronic records system (PACER) were improperly charged for accessing records. The government had argued that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case, and that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

Law.com has the story here.  And for those who do not want to pay PACER fees, the court’s order is here. 🙂

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: The Florida lawsuit here is separate from the lawsuit in the first linked story.  That suit, filed in the federal district court in the District of Columbia, has already certified a class. Both cases apparently will now go forward.

Frost on the Dying Art of Courtroom Illustration

Regular readers of this blog know that I am strong advocate of broadcasting courtroom proceedings.  But increasing use of cameras and live streaming may mean the death knell for vivid courtroom illustration.  Natasha Frost has a very interesting article at Atlas Obscura that looks at some of the history of this dying art.