Judge says state courts must offer timely access to filings

Virginia Beach court

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A federal judge in Virginia has ruled that the First Amendment guarantees a qualified right to access newly filed civil lawsuits on the day they are filed.

The judge also declared Friday that state court officials in Norfolk and Prince William County deprived a court news service of that First Amendment right for several months starting in January 2018.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Courthouse News Service after its reporters were forced to wait for court clerks to docket and scan complaints before making them available on public computer terminals.

The judged noted that prior to 2018, Courthouse News reporters were often able to review new complaints before data entry and scanning.

But that changed in January 2018 after Courthouse News asked for several complaints that had been filed but not yet scanned and made available on the public access terminals.

Only after the lawsuit was filed did court clerks see a dramatic increase in same-day access to civil filings.

While agreeing that there is a First Amendment right to timely access to court filings, the judge declined to issue an injunction in the case, saying the defendants have been trying in good faith to comply with the demands of the First Amendment since the lawsuit was filed.

He noted, however, that there was a real risk that, without an injunction, the defendants could revert to previous practices. He therefore said he would retain jurisdiction in the case and ordered the parties to file a joint status report in August on level of access provided by the defendants.

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