(CN) — A wire tray sitting atop a counter, located on the ground floor of the Polk County Courthouse, had a very important role in the judicial system: To ensure journalists and the public had immediate access to new civil petitions.
With the dawn of electronic filing, the humble tray was replaced by a virtual filing process that took away the traditional instant access. Instead, those interested in the filings must wait for a “processing” phase to finish up, often delaying access at least until the day after filing.
The change is the subject of a lawsuit filed by Courthouse News and Lee Enterprises, one of the country’s largest newspaper publishers, Friday in federal court. It asserts a First Amendment right to access to new civil petitions filed in Iowa state courts.
“Such access is fundamental and essential to accurate and fair news reporting of civil court actions, and, thus, vital to the public’s ability to monitor the activities of the judicial branch of government,” the media organizations say in their 18-page lawsuit. “Any unjustifiable delays in access result in unconstitutional restrictions of the press’s and public’s ability to perform that important role.”
The lawsuit names the Iowa state court administrator, Robert Gast, and Polk County District Court clerk Anne Sheeley. Iowa’s office of court administration did not immediately return a request for comment. The news agencies seek a judgment declaring the policies of withholding filings until after processing a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment, and preliminary and permanent injunctions of the policies.
Des Moines attorney Gary Dickey of Dickey, Campbell, & Sahag filed the complaint along with Herbert Giorgio Jr. and Andrea Butler of Bryan Cave.
In a letter to Gast, Courthouse News editor Bill Girdner explained the lacking access issues and pointed out how other state courts, like those in Utah, auto-accept new civil complaints so they may be available immediately — like a digitized version of the old days of reading filings as soon as they were stamped by the clerk’s office.
“That prompt access flowed from the fact that new civil actions are a common and traditional source of news, and news has a short shelf life,” Girdner wrote in the September 2022 letter. “I compare news to bread, fresh on the day it’s made and stale the next.”
Courthouse News has taken its fight for court filing access across the country, to Oregon, Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia — and now, Iowa. Along the way, it's seen agreement from federal judges who point to the instant nature of acquiring documents in the days of analog filings.
“There was a time when — and some in this room may remember it — when you took a pleading to the courthouse and the clerk stamped it physically and it went into different bins and it was available immediately,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby Shepherd, a George W. Bush appointee, during an Eighth Circuit hearing last year.
In 2018, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council made a similar point in a letter to the Iowa Supreme Court requesting changes to electronic filing practices.
"Back in the 'old days,' when paper court documents were filed in the clerks' offices, a time-stamped copy of each filing went into a basket on the counter where it was publicly accessible that day," the council wrote. "Reporters could see what new cases were filed that day and write their stories that day. That is the essence of news."
Even with e-filing, courts can configure systems that allow the same immediate access, as Girdner pointed out in letters to Gast and Sheeley. Most recently, Florida has done so, as do federal courts and state courts in California, Texas, New York and many more.
For instance, in March a judge ordered a county clerk to stop withholding e-filed complaints in Franklin County, Ohio, from the public during a review process. A representative for the clerk has assured Courthouse News that the court-mandated changes are imminent.
When a response from the Iowa court administrators, then, said that the clerk’s office would look into changes but promised no timeline, Girdner’s reply made clear that the vague answer would not quell the First Amendment concerns.
“So we are convinced that your office has the means for provisioning access,” Girdner wrote. “What appears to be lacking is the will.”
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