First Amendment Case Against|Ventura Clerk Reinstated by 9th Circuit

LOS ANGELES (CN) – The Ninth Circuit on Tuesday reinstated a First Amendment action brought by Courthouse News over lengthy delays in access to the public record in Ventura Superior Court.
A host of major news organizations, including the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, joined Courthouse News in appealing a dismissal of the action by U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real.
“The district court disregarded our mandate by erroneously ruling as a matter of law the filed civil complaints which have not yet been the subject of a hearing are outside the scope of the First Amendment right of access,” said Tuesday’s opinion by a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel.
In reversing Real for the second time, the panel also reassigned the matter to a different judge.
“The district court judge has expressed strong views, inconsistent with our prior opinion, on the merits of this case, failed to conduct the proper fact-specific inquiry, and dismissed this case before an answer was filed twice,” said the Ninth Circuit panel of judges, Kim McLane Wardlaw, Mary Murguia and John Noonan.
At stake in the litigation is the First Amendment right to prompt access to the public record, to report the news while it is fresh rather than being forced to wait until it is no longer news.
The Ventura court clerk, Michael Planet, and his staff were refusing to grant journalists access to new cases until various administrative tasks were finished. The delay lasted up to six weeks, especially in more important or newsworthy cases such as those involving environmental and water disputes.
Courthouse News filed an action in federal court in Los Angeles in 2011 challenging those delays. But Real soon dismissed the case.
That first dismissal was reversed by the Ninth Circuit last year in a unanimous and strongly-worded opinion by the same panel of judges, Wardlaw, Murguia and Noonan, reaffirming the press’s First Amendment right of access to the public record of the courts.
“Open government has been a hallmark of our democracy since our nation’s founding,” said the 2014 opinion written by Wardlaw. “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. 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.”
Despite that ruling, Real again dismissed the action by Courthouse News last fall, which led to Tuesday’s Ninth Circuit reversal and reassignment.
The Ventura clerk is represented by Robert Naeve with Jones Day who has handled a number of cases on behalf of the central administration of the California courts. The controversial bureaucracy has been repeatedly criticized by the state auditor and legislators over spending and policy decisions.
At the apex of power within that bureaucracy is the director, Martin Hoshino, and above him, California’s chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In paying a top-tier private law firm, the court administrators are using large sums of public money to resist public access.
On the other side of the case, Courthouse News is represented by Roger Myers, Rachel Matteo-Boehm, Jonathan Fetterly and Leila Knox with Bryan Cave.
“The fundamental issue at stake is prompt access to information about new civil actions which many other courts around the county have no problems providing,” said Matteo-Boehm. “We are astounded the Ventura Superior has chosen to fight this litigation for almost four years and incur who knows how much in the way of legal fees to fight a practice that is common place in other courts.”
In pursuing the case, Courthouse News reporters pointed out that the standard routine for a journalist on the court beat is to check new filings at the end of the day. Most big courts in the nation, including the same federal court where Real sits in Los Angeles, have for decades allowed journalists to review the new filings at the end of the day on the day they are filed.
“Providing same-day access is a simple thing, courts do it all the time,” said Matteo-Boehm. “This isn’t that hard. All Courthouse News wants to do is see less than ten civil complaints per day that are sitting right there. This should not require four years of litigation.”
Because the issue at stake is a traditional right of access held by journalists, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 25 media organizations joined in challenging Real’s dismissal of the Courthouse News action.
The groups joining in the appeal include The Associated Press, Bloomberg L.P., Dow Jones & Company, E.W. Scripps Company, Gannett Company, Hearst Corporation, the Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Company, The New York Times, The New Yorker, News Corporation and Seattle Times Company.
“Having access to complaints is an important component of reporting on the legal system and the judicial branch,” said the amicus brief by the news organizations. “Civil complaints are most newsworthy the day they are filed, and, accordingly, the media is most likely to report on lawsuits of public interest and concern at that time.
After Tuesday’s reversal, the case returns to the federal court in Los Angeles to be reassigned to a different judge and follow the course started four years ago, with Courthouse News asking for an order requiring that the Ventura clerk provide the press with same-day access to the new actions.

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