NEFAC Renews Call for Timely Access to Civil Court Documents in Ninth Circuit

CONTACT Justin Silverman | 774.244.2365 |


The New England First Amendment Coalition recently renewed its call for immediate access to civil court documents in the Ninth Circuit, arguing in an amicus brief that such access allows the public to “engage in meaningful discussion and debate about pending lawsuits.”

NEFAC joined 26 news organizations and media advocates in the July 7 brief drafted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and filed in Courthouse News Service v. Planet, a case currently being heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

NEFAC joined similar briefs in this case in 2014 and 2016.

“While this case is outside New England jurisdictions, it’s one of significant importance,” said Justin Silverman, NEFAC’s executive director. “We’ve experienced similar situations in our own region and an adverse ruling in the Ninth Circuit could affect how courts view the issue here.”

The case involves a Superior Court practice of withholding civil complaints until court officials can process the documents. This processing often takes several days or longer and goes against common practices across the country of providing access to court documents once they are filed.

Immediate access to these records, according to the brief, will benefit the public by facilitating accurate, complete and timely news reporting. Such access will enhance the public’s understanding of judicial processes, promote knowledge of individual legal rights, and potentially conserve judicial resources as news reports can efficiently inform others of similar complaints.

According to the brief:

“In the modern news environment, court policies that delay access to judicial records can amount to a complete denial of meaningful access, because ‘old news’ does not receive the same level of public attention as timely news, and thus may not be published at all. In contrast, timely access to civil complaints allows the news media to learn of new civil lawsuits as they are filed and to report them to the public when their newsworthiness is at its height.”

In addition to its involvement in this case, NEFAC recently urged the Vermont Attorney General not to defend a similar practice of withholding documents from the public. 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. 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.

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.