In a unanimous and strongly worded opinion, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday that press access to state court records is a clear First Amendment issue that belongs in federal court. The ruling in favor of Courthouse News Service came as part of a challenge to the Ventura court clerk's imposition of long delays to access newly filed records.
"The news media's right of access to judicial proceedings is essential not only to its own free expression, but also to the public's," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the three-judge panel. "It is thus well-established that the right of access to public records and proceedings is 'necessary to the enjoyment' of the right to free speech."
Courthouse News had gone into federal court to challenge Ventura clerk Michael Planet over a policy followed by a minority of courts in California, delaying access to newly filed court records until official processing is completed. As a result, press access is delayed until the new matters are no longer news.
CNS argued that the delay violated the right of access to judicial proceedings guaranteed under the First Amendment. Moving for dismissal, the clerk claimed that the case was not about free speech at all but rather the state's clear discretion to withhold some information.
U.S. District Judge Manuel Real in Los Angeles then dismissed the complaint, agreeing with the clerk that he should abstain because the case involved a sensitive state issue. That decision was reversed Monday by the appellate court.
"Abstaining in this case portends particularly egregious damage to First Amendment rights because it stifles the 'free discussion of governmental affairs' that the First Amendment exists to protect," the unanimous 9th Circuit ruling states. "The purpose of CNS's effort to timely access filed unlimited civil complaints is to report on whatever newsworthy content they contain, and CNS cannot report on complaint the Ventura County Superior Court withholds."
In a 32-page opinion, Wardlaw said Courthouse News should not be left to wait on when or whether a California state court decided to take up the First Amendment issue.
"We decline to leave CNS and those who rely on its reporting twisting in the wind while the state courts address a different question entirely - the interpretation of a state law that itself recognizes the importance of public access to judicial proceedings," Wardlaw wrote.
Representing CNS, Rachel Matteo-Boehm with Bryan Cave rejected the argument made by the clerk's lawyer, Robert Naeve with Jones Day, who said the case had nothing to do with free expression.
"This was definitely a case involving free expression," Matteo-Boehm said in an interview. "You can't talk about your government unless you know what your government is doing. The right of access is necessary to allow the public to discuss what the courts are doing."
Naeve, who represents the Ventura clerk and the overarching bureaucracy in California's Administrative Office of the Courts, did not return a request for comment.
The background to the litigation is tied to policies of the administrative office, an 800-strong, San Francisco-based bureaucracy that has been criticized by the press for its opposition to government transparency on a host of matters.