As reported by Courthouse News,
Over four days of trial earlier this month, Virginia court clerks used public funds and private attorneys to fight tooth and nail against public access. They wound up with a thumping defeat last week, as a federal judge’s opinion affirmed the First Amendment right to see new court complaints on the day they are filed.
The story went on,
Included in their hard-core opposition, the court clerks, who are elected politicians, simply denied that they were withholding access and then covered up evidence to the contrary.
But, after persistent requests and depositions under oath, the evidence of delay was extracted from the executive secretary of the Virginia Supreme Court. And that data was poured into the opinion by U.S. District Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. as its foundation.
After “45 pages that included a detailed and thorough review of the facts and a lengthy legal analysis, the judge concluded:
“1. That the press and public, including Plaintiff, enjoy a qualified right of access to newly-filed civil complaints contemporaneous with the filing of the complaint.
“2. That ‘contemporaneous’ in this context means ‘the same day on which the complaint is filed, insofar as is practicable;’ and, when not practicable, on the next court date.”
“Media, in all of its forms, is the instrument through which the public, as well as public and private institutions, receive the information upon which the rely in making well informed everyday decisions,” wrote Morgan. “To efficiently inform the public, the media must have complete and timely access in our increasingly data-driven decision making.”
While Morgan declined to issue an injunction, his declaratory order bore many of those markings.
He ordered the parties to monitor levels of access for six months and provide a status report in August. If the parties could not agree that the access had remained adequate, Courthouse News could renew its request for an injunction.
Morgan also certified his ruling for appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Lawyers for the clerks said in open court that they are likely to appeal.
Eric J. Ellman is Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Legal Affairs at the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA) in Washington, DC. He also served for eight months as Interim President and CEO of the Association. More