NEFAC, Media Organizations Defend Right of Access to Civil Court Documents in Fourth Circuit Case

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The New England First Amendment Coalition recently argued for immediate public access to civil complaints filed in Virginia, emphasizing open government principles that apply to courts across the country.

“A well-functioning democracy requires a public that is knowledgeable and informed about the workings of the judicial branch,” explained NEFAC and other advocates in a Feb. 10 amicus brief drafted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Court records are the most valuable and direct sources of reliable information for journalists reporting on criminal matters and civil lawsuits.”

NEFAC and fellow amici filed the brief in Courthouse News Service v. Smith and Commonwealth of Virginia, a case being heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The case concerns restrictions on Virginia’s Officer the Court Remote Access system, which grants subscribers remote, online access to non-confidential civil court records from 105 participating Virginia circuit courthouses. Only attorneys licensed to practice law in Virginia and select government agencies, however, are permitted to subscribe to OCRA.

Amici described in their brief the importance of contemporaneous access to civil court records — for all members of the public — and explained how access to similar online systems in other jurisdictions aids the news media’s ability to provide timely reporting about court proceedings of public concern.

“Delaying access by even one day may imperil the news media’s ability to provide meaningful reporting on newly filed, newsworthy lawsuits, as the next day’s headlines can eclipse yesterday’s news,” amici wrote.

“Indeed, policies that delay access to judicial records — like the Non-Attorney Access Restriction — can amount to a complete denial of meaningful access, as ‘old news’ does not receive the same level of public attention as timely news and may not be published at all. In contrast, timely access to civil court records allows the news media to report on them when their newsworthiness is at its apex,” they added.

NEFAC has a long history of advocating for better access to judicial records. The coalition joined similar amicus brief efforts in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2019. In May 2021, NEFAC joined several media organizations to successfully sue Vermont court officials over delays in public access. In October of that year, NEFAC intervened in a New Hampshire case to argue for the release of documents that were inappropriately sealed. Then in December 2021, the coalition joined media groups in Maine to protect the public’s right to court records.

While several of these cases are are outside New England jurisdictions, NEFAC considers them to be of significant importance. The issue of timely access to court documents is one faced by many New Englanders and an adverse ruling in any federal appeals court could affect how courts view the issue locally.

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.

Leadership Circle donors include the Rhode Island Foundation, Hearst Connecticut Media Group, The Boston Globe, Paul and Ann Sagan, and the Robertson Foundation. Major Supporters include Boston University, WBUR-Boston, the Academy of New England Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation, Genie Gannett, Linda Pizzuti Henry, Champa Charitable Foundation, Connecticut Public and GBH-Boston.