Friday, September 22, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Friday, September 22, 2023 | Back issues
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Different Tune

Our reporter in Fort Wayne, Indiana called me last week to say that intake clerks in the federal courthouse had taken away the organizer used by journalists to check on new matters, and politely directed her to use the internet.

There are many, many ways that federal courts provide journalists with access to the court's work and just as many ways that they have adapted to the changing technology of the times.

But within those permutations of change, the principle that the federal courts are open to the press has not changed. It has remained constant.

In Fort Wayne, for example, cover sheets were placed on the intake counter in an upright file organizer. It had been that way for as long as we have been reporting on the court, roughly a decade.

News reporters checked the cover sheets and asked clerks at the counter for the new cases they wanted to see. It is not unlike a fisherman checking his lines.

The result was that the press corps saw the new cases on the day they are filed in the Northern District, where the great majority of cases are filed in paper form.

But an intake clerk told our reporter over the holidays that the record "is not official until it's on PACER," the online system of the federal courts. Therefore the cover sheets on the intake counter, and the ability to the see the paper file, were being taken away.

The intake clerk's secondary argument for removing the organizer was that other divisions in the Northern District did not have the same procedure for press access, and therefore Forth Wayne was inconsistent.

I wrote to the chief judge and the court clerk, arguing that we disagreed fundamentally with the notion that a new case could not be reviewed until it was docketed, scanned and posted on the internet, a process that takes time, days in some courts, weeks in others.

A public filing is public when it crosses the counter, in our view, and federal courts have consistently reflected that view in their policies towards the press.

As a secondary point, I noted that consistency would just as strongly favor putting the Fort Wayne system for press access into effect in South Bend and the other divisions of the district court.

Three days after the letter was mailed, the court clerk replied, saying the system for press access in Fort Wayne was being reinstated and extended to the other divisions of the court.

I stared at that email and thought, OK, this makes too much sense. But there was no catch. Press access was being restored and extended.

The contrast between that response and the response from California's central court administrators is like the difference between day and night.

California administrators that pushed the boondoggle of the Court Case Management System also take the view that journalists can't see anything until the new cases are stamped, docketed, scanned and posted online.

They take the position that is the same as the position only briefly adopted, and quickly overturned, in federal court in Fort Wayne: that a new filing is not official until it's processed into the electronic system.

But, in contrast to the efficient and favorable response from federal court officials when that position was challenged, the response from California's central administrators, and those clerks who have demonstrated fealty to them, has ranged from a general run-around, to, on one occasion, profanity, to silence, to a pat list of excuses, to meetings that lead nowhere, and, on occasion, to misstatements of fact (a polite way to put it).

It is funny, as one would say that with a rueful expression, to compare the banging away we have done on those CCMS-enamored and now efiling-enamored administrators in California, and the effect that has had -- funny to compare that with a simple letter to a federal court judge, and the effect that had.

It is also a relief to know that a request from the press corps for better access to public information can be met quickly and sensibly, and not necessarily require hitting one's head against a bureaucratic wall.

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