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North Carolina slapped with First Amendment suit over access delays

Since courts implemented eFile North Carolina, around half of the state’s newly filed complaints have been withheld for a processing phase lasting one to three days or even longer.

RALEIGH (CN) — Courthouse News took on North Carolina over public access delays in its latest First Amendment lawsuit aimed at getting state e-filing systems to provide immediate access to new complaints for the press and public. 

“During the transition from paper to electronic court records, federal courts and many state courts kept in place the age-old tradition of access. But some state court clerks and administrators abandoned it,” Courthouse News says in its 21-page federal complaint filed Thursday. 

In the analog filing days, reporters covering courts could pick up new complaints at a media box, bin or cart at the clerk’s office, available regardless of whether the complaints had been docketed. 

Since Tar Heel courts implemented the eFile North Carolina system, around half of the state’s newly filed complaints have been withheld for a processing phase lasting one to three days or even longer, Courthouse News says in its complaint. 

The lag leaves the latest news on the digital shelf gathering dust out of public view. 

In one instance cited in the complaint, the producer of a local politics show "Front Row," supposedly not renewed because it has shifted toward the political right, sued PBC North Carolina to produce documents about the show. That complaint was effectively sealed the day it was filed, preventing Courthouse News and other outlets from reporting on it. 

Other examples included a Raleigh resident filing a class action over an employee data breach at Pepsi Bottling Ventures and a fraud lawsuit against Wyoming business Dragonfly Alliance involving investments in a “plasma technology” process to extract gold at extremely low cost. 

E-filing software can be configured, the lawsuit points out, so that new civil complaints are accessible as soon as they are filed, a practice used in Florida, California, Texas, New York and many other states as well as federal courts. 

Primary counsel for Courthouse News are Tampa, Florida-based attorneys Carol LoCicero and Mark Caramanica with Thomas & LoCicero. The news service's North Carolina attorneys are Michael Tadych and Elizabeth Soja with Stevens, Martin, Vaughn & Tadych. 

The North Carolina suit follows another complaint that Courthouse News and Lee Enterprises, one of the country’s largest newspaper publishers, filed last week in federal court in Iowa. It asserts a First Amendment right to access to new civil petitions filed in Iowa state courts. 

A judge in another action filed by Courthouse News, against the clerk of Franklin County, Ohio, ordered the clerk in March to stop withholding e-filed complaints from the public during a review process. 

Courthouse News has taken its fight for court filing access across the country, to OregonIdahoMissouriNew Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia as well. 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. 

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