Coalition Urged AG’s Office Not to Defend Practice of Withholding Documents from Public
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The New England First Amendment Coalition this week’s announcement by the state of Vermont that it will begin to make public all lawsuits as soon as they are filed.
The decision follows a federal lawsuit against the state by Courthouse News Service, a California-based wire service that reports on litigation filed throughout the country.
Vermont courts previously withheld from the public all lawsuit filings until the matter was resolved or at least one of the defendants in the suit had been served and the time for serving other defendants had elapsed. Vermont was the only state in the country to allow such a delay, according to the CNS complaint. Because the deadline for service is 60 days and can be extended by the court, there could have been a two month or longer delay to access the filings under the old rule.
The Vermont Supreme Court released an order effective April 24 that this judicial policy is changed to allow the public immediate access to the documents once they are filed.
“The old provision of secret files, even when there had been a hearing, is just one of several outdated policies,” said Michael Donoghue, NEFAC’s vice president and a former Burlington Free Press staff writer. “Our coalition urged the Vermont Attorney General’s Office not to waste tax dollars trying to defend this policy when Vermont was the only state doing it this way.”
Added Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director: “This is a win for open government. Vermonters have a right to know about lawsuits filed in their courts and to have timely access to those documents.”
As CNS stated in its complaint, such access is a First Amendment right:
“The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides the press and the public with a presumptive right to access judicial proceedings and documents in civil cases, including newly-filed civil complaints, which are the cornerstone of every case, and docket records, which provide the public and press with the information needed to exercise their First Amendment right to access. While the First Amendment right of access may be limited in certain, narrow circumstances, the presumption is one of unfettered access upon filing.”
NEFAC joined an amicus brief last year in a similar case brought by CNS in the U.S. District Court of California. That case involved a state Superior Court practice of withholding civil complaints until court officials could process the documents, which often took several days or longer. CNS also prevailed in that case.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.