Ninth Circuit Rules on Court Processes and Media Right to Access

Steven D. Schwinn, UIC John Marshall Law School

The Ninth Circuit ruled on Friday that a media plaintiff had a First Amendment right to access nonconfidential civil complaints, and that one court policy violated that right, where another court policy didn’t. The ruling sets a test and clarifies the law in the Ninth Circuit.

The case, Courthouse News Service v. Planet, arose when CNS challenged the process of releasing nonconfidential complaints to the press in Ventura County Superior Court. That process, dubbed “no access before process,” meant that the court put newly filed civil complaints through a seven-step administrative process before releasing them to the media. That could take a couple days, so CNS sued, seeking immediate access. (Venture County doesn’t use electronic filing; it’s all paper.)

As the case worked its way through the federal courts, Ventura County changed its practice to a “scanning policy.” Under the scanning policy, the court scanned complaints and made them available the same day (in most cases) on court computers. CNS still wanted immediate access, however, so the case moved on.

The Ninth Circuit said that CNS has a qualified First Amendment right of access to newly filed, nonconfidential civil complaints, and that the “no access before process” violated it, while the “scanning policy” didn’t. The Ninth Circuit held that courts could adopt reasonable restrictions on access resembling time, place, and manner regulations. These could result in incidental delays in access, so long as they are content-neutral, narrowly tailored and necessary to serve the court’s important interest in the fair and orderly administration of justice. Or: “Ventura County must demonstrate first that there is a ‘substantial probability’ that its interest in the fair and orderly administration of justice would be impaired by immediate access, and second, that no reasonable alternatives exist to ‘adequately protect’ that government interest.”

As to the “no access before process” policy, the court said that it resulted in significant delays, but didn’t serve (and in fact were entirely unrelated to) the stated interests in privacy and confidentiality, complying with accounting protocols, controlling quality and accuracy, promoting efficient court administration, or promoting the integrity of court records. It also said that the policy “caused far greater delays than were necessary to protect [these interests].”

As to the scanning policy, the court said that it directly related to the court’s asserted interests and that, after the court changed its filing hours, the policy resulted in “near perfect” same-day access to the complaints. (Before the court changed its filing hours, there wasn’t near perfect same-day access, but the Ninth Circuit gave the court a pass, because it faced resource constraints.)

The ruling leaves the current scanning policy in place.

Judge Smith concurred in part, arguing that the majority wrongly applied strict scrutiny, and instead should have applied “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions.”