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Showing posts with label courthouse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label courthouse. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

First Amendment right of access to court records is alive and kicking in electronic era

Developments in the First Amendment right of access to court records were on the menu this afternoon for a continuing legal education program from the American Bar Association (ABA).

The First Amendment protects "the freedom of speech, or of the press," and the U.S. Supreme Court in most contexts has rejected the First Amendment as carving out an affirmative access doctrine.  Yet access to court proceedings and records is an exceptional and narrow area of First Amendment law that grew out of criminal defendants' trial rights in the 1970s and 1980s.  (Co-authors and I wrote about the First Amendment and related common law right of access to court records in the early days of electronic court record access policy.)

Lately there has been some litigation pushing to clarify, if not expand, the First Amendment right of access to court records.  Specifically, courts in two federal jurisdictions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, have recognized a right of timely access to newly filed trial court complaints.

The public access problem arose as a corollary to the economic exigency that has constrained contemporary journalism.  When I graduated from journalism school, and triceratops roamed the earth, a good journalist on the court beat checked the dockets at the clerk's office at the end of every day.  But the luxury of one journalist-one beat is long a thing of the past, and now it's harder for the working journalist to keep close tabs on new developments at the courthouse.  In this atmosphere, some state court clerks—most definitely not all, our presenters hastened to clarify—took to withholding newly filed complaints from the public record, whether while pending for "processing," or, one might speculate, to deter coverage of sensitive subject matter long enough for news editors to lose interest.

Courthouse News Service (CNS) is a national media entity reporting on civil litigation in state and federal courts.  I reference CNS often myself, here on the blog and in teaching and research, especially for pretrial court coverage, which is hard to come by in the United States.  CNS pushed back against the delayed release of pleadings, suing successfully in civil rights under the principal federal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  CNS had to beat abstention in both jurisdictions, which it did, after a first appeal and remand in the Ninth Circuit.

Relying on the range of federal precedents supporting the principle that "access delayed is access denied," CNS substantially prevailed upon its second go in federal trial court in California.  That case was called Planet, and CNS also won on appeal in, and remand from, the Ninth Circuit in a case called Yamasaki.  Remarkably, the third CNS case, in federal court in Virginia, featured full-on discovery, experts, and motions practice on its way to a four-day bench trial and CNS win.  Questions of fact arose from the clerks' purported necessity for delay while pleadings were "processed."  The court in Virginia declined formally to follow Planet, favoring a tougher articulation of the requisite First Amendment scrutiny.

The take-away from all of the cases is that the First Amendment does attach to newly filed pleadings, under the Press-Enterprise II "experience and logic test"; that timely ("contemporaneous," which doesn't mean instant) access matters from a First Amendment perspective; and that delays in access must survive heightened constitutional scrutiny.

These are the access-to-pleadings cases that the ABA presenters discussed:

  • Courthouse News Serv. v. Planet, 947 F.3d 581 (9th Cir. Jan. 17, 2020) (“Planet III”), aff'g in part & vacating in part Courthouse News Serv. v. Planet, 44 Media L. Rep. 2261, 2016 WL 4157210 (C.D. Cal. May 26, 2016).
  • Courthouse News Serv. v. Yamasaki, 950 F.3d 640 (9th Cir. Feb. 24, 2020), remanding, for further proceedings consistent with Planet III, Courthouse News Serv. v. Yamasaki, 312 F. Supp. 3d (C.D. Cal. May 9, 2018).
  • Courthouse News Serv. v. Schaefer, ___ F. Supp. 3d ___, 2020 WL 863516 (E.D. Va. Feb. 21) (dkt. no. 102), appeal filed, No. 20-1386 (4th Cir. Apr. 2, 2020).

CLE presenters also discussed record access in the following cases.  I've added links to cases in trial court dispositions.
  • Brown v. Maxwell, 929 F.3d 41 (2d Cir 2019) (remanding for in camera document review in journalist bid to access records in case of sexual abuse victim's allegations against late financier Jeffrey Epstein).
  • In re New York Times, 799 Fed. Appx. 62 (2d Cir. 2020) (affirming in part and vacating in part sealing of two parts of transcript of guilty plea hearing in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecution of former Goldman Sachs employee Timothy Leissner).
  • Mirlis v. Greer, 952 F.3d 51 (2d Cir. 2020) (secreting video depositions of non-party witnesses, their privacy interests overcoming access presumption, upon access bid by online blogger in case by former student at orthodox Jewish school against the school and principal, alleging the principal sexually molested him while he was a student).
  • Trump v. Deutshce Bank AG, 940 F.3d 146 (2d Cir. 2019) (denying access to taxpayer names as not "judicial documents," upon news organizations' motions to intervene and unseal unredacted letter filed by bank in appeal, in order to learn the redacted names of taxpayers whose income tax returns were in bank's possession, in case of bank resistance to subpoenas in House investigation of President's tax returns).
  • King & Spalding, LLP v. U.S. Dep’t of Health and Hum. Servs., No. 1:16-CV-01616, 2020 WL 1695081 (Apr. 7, 2020) (denying seal, but allowing withdrawal, of information about attorney fees filed with motion, rejecting firm's claim of need to protect competitive information).
  • United States v. Avenatti, No. 1:19-CR-00373, 2020 WL 70952 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 6, 2020) (denying motion, filed by Government, defendant, and subpoena target, to seal records related to subpoena duces tecum issued on behalf of defendant on non-party in criminal proceeding).
  • VR Optics, LLC v. Peloton Interactive, Inc., No. 1:16-CV-06392, 2020 WL 1644204, at *10 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 2, 2020) (dkt. no. 308, at 17-20) (denying, as moot, motions by both parties to seal trial court records in patent dispute).
  • Motion to Intervene and Unseal, Dawson v. Merck & Co., No. 1:12-cv-01876 (E.D.N.Y. filed Sept. 12, 2019, dkt. no. 121) (decision pending) (seeking unsealing and removal of redactions in court records in settled multi-district product liability litigation over alleged side effects of prescription drug, "Propecia," upon motion of news agency Reuters).

One indicator I found encouraging from an access advocate's perspective is the incidence of court rulings in favor of access even when both parties want to seal.

The ABA program was sponsored by the Forum on Communications Law.  The presenters were: