Hundreds of civil lawsuits are filed across the country every day. Once filed, those documents become a matter of public record, which journalists and other members of the public have a right to review. In most cases, journalists seek out those documents in person or online and can see them on the same day they are filed. But in Ventura County, California, the court clerk has been been fighting for nearly five years to keep those records secret for days or even weeks at a time.
The California-based Courthouse News Service sued Ventura County and Clerk Michael Planet over the issue in 2011. A district court judge threw out the case, but a federal appeals court ordered the case to go to trial. The district judge again dismissed the case and the appeals court ordered a second time that the suit must be heard, and called for a different district judge to preside.
Now, as the case finally nears the trial stage, Courthouse News Service filed for summary judgment this week, asking the judge to order Ventura County to produce court filings in a timely manner. RTDNA, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and several other media organizations have filed a brief, urging the judge to grant summary judgment.
The brief reads in part, "Prompt, no later than same-day access to newly filed unlimited civil complaints for members of the news media and the public provides significant benefits. It is beyond dispute that timeliness is a hallmark of newsworthiness. The news media cannot fulfill its constitutional role of informing the public about the workings of government if it cannot provide timely information. But timeliness is more than just a competitive interest of the news media; immediate access to court documents makes reporting more accurate, fair, and complete. Same-day access to newly filed unlimited civil complaints fosters accurate news reporting by permitting journalists to review primary sources of information. It also encourages greater public understanding and more informed debate about the judicial system and the controversies adjudicated within it."
It goes on to say, "Quick access to newsworthy information is an important element of the news business for competitive reasons, but it also serves the interests of the public. Timely access to court documents makes reporting more accurate, fair, and complete, and thus should be encouraged by courts. Delay has consequences. If a journalist receives more accurate information from the delayed release of a court filing two or three days after a story has aired, the public may never know."
You can read the complete brief here.