Courthouse News Service takes home another win in the ongoing fight for the respect of the First Amendment.
For years, courts received filings printed on paper. Those filings were routinely made available to journalists almost immediately. Whatever processing needed to be done could be interrupted long enough to make copies for reporters. Nothing slowed down and the presumptive openness of the courts was preserved.
Then came the digital revolution. Receiving and creating digital copies should have made access even more immediate. For some reason, this, instead, created an excuse for courts around the nation to withhold documents for hours, days, or weeks, supposedly because some sort of intensive “processing” of 1s and 0s was occurring behind the scenes.
Converting near-instantaneous processing into delayed access has resulted in plenty of legal action. Courthouse News Service — obviously heavily reliant on timely access to court documents — has engaged in legal action in several states over this obvious bullshit perpetrated by court clerks.
The government (meaning the needlessly recalcitrant clerks) isn’t winning. In court-on-court action, courts are siding with the First Amendment and against court clerks who’ve turned their offices into unconstitutional fiefdoms.
Clerks in the state of Florida fucked around and found out. A settlement agreement presented to the court in the middle of last month has been approved by a Florida federal court, bringing an end to one of several Courthouse News lawsuits, and restoring a right to access filings to journalists.
With a population of 21 million, Florida joins the biggest state in the nation, California, and the fourth biggest, New York, in returning traditional access to the public record of the courts in the electronic era. A related First Amendment action is now pending in the second biggest state, Texas, with 29 million people, also seeking to reclaim the First Amendment right taken away under the cover of modernization.
The terms of the deal between this news service and Florida’s e-filing authority calls for Florida to give public access to new court filings “on receipt.” In exchange, Courthouse News agreed to give up its claim for attorney fees.
This settlement applies to the entire state, so even if fiefdoms crop up, they won’t last for long. Journalists and other members of the public seeking access to court documents won’t have to wait for long either. Various clerks may have erected arbitrary time frames for the release of filings, but the settlement the state of Florida agreed to mandates near-real time access:
The key language in the underlying agreement states: “In consideration for the time and expense incurred by counsel for CNS, the Florida Courts E-Filing Authority will implement a statewide public access system in the E-Filing Portal for nonconfidential circuit civil complaints to be publicly accessible upon receipt, but in no circumstances to exceed five minutes.”
This is a huge win for everyone who isn’t a court clerk harboring delusions of grandeur. It follows a decision in favor of Courthouse News Service delivered in June by this same court — one that said the “right to access is foundational to the function of our judicial system.”
This decision (and the settlement that followed it) may seem like obvious outcomes. But it took Courthouse News six years and an unknown amount of its own money to force the government to respect rights it promised American citizens it would not violate. Unfortunately, government entities prefer spending money to pay government employees to violate rights and force citizens to fund attempts to convert these rights violations into legally acceptable government behavior. Every step of the process requires citizens to pay governments to argue against what’s best for the (supposedly) represented.
That’s not what we were promised when this nation was founded. But a couple hundred years later, it’s what we’ve ended up with.