Piece of Parchment

     I am writing from the jury assembly room at the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles. Three juries have been called but I have not been among the lucky winners.
     The requirement that one must idle away some time came as a welcome task. I caught up on my newspapers, and talked with fellow jurors. But in the afternoon, as the computers in the room became free, I went back to work.
     With access to my email online and a cell phone next to me, it became just another work day. And it made me reconsider a plan to take a laptop with when I go on vacation in a couple weeks.
     Those machines have altered life’s ways, and made the world more seamless. They have taken away a good part of the power held in our physical surroundings to alter our frame of reference and routines of thought, to disrupt and reorder our view of the world, and to force upon us the genius of adaptation to unfamiliar circumstances.
     The machines have certainly helped Courthouse News Service, and they have expanded the flow of information to just about everybody, especially the young.
     But they are not the greatest thing since sliced bread, as court bureaucrats love to claim. In court after court, we are faced with bureaucrats who under the guise of modernization turn back the clock on press access. Take Harris County District Court, for example, the state court of general jurisdiction in Houston.
     A newly elected Democratic clerk, young guy, ran on the slogan, “Get online not in line.” Once in office, he proceeded to cut off access to roughly 90 percent of the new actions, and kicked reporters from the Houston Chronicle and from Courthouse News Service out from behind the counter.
     His public information officer urged our reporter to stay home and look at the new actions online — “Wouldn’t that be great?” he said.
     In a letter to the clerk, I compared that statement to asking someone who had just lost a job, “Isn’t it great to be at home.”
     The problem with the clerk’s initiative was that the court took up to nine court days to get the cases online. The court was exerting its monopoly control over the documents to publish first and make money off copies. The clerk, Loren Jackson, said this was progress.
     We challenged him in federal court, asking for an injunction. Maybe it should not have been a surprise — because we have generally fared well on access issues when a judge gets involved — but the judge agreed with us last week.
     Judge Melinda Harmon found that the new petitions are indeed an important source of information about the courts, a point made by the rapid expansion of our news service, by the increasing number of competitors and by a host of subscribing law firms.
     Of critical importance, she found that the delay imposed and defended by Jackson was the equivalent of a denial of access. In a nine-page ruling, she found that Jackson had violated the First Amendment and she ordered him to provide Courthouse News with same-day access to the newly filed petitions.
     “There is an important First Amendment interest in providing timely access to new case-initiating documents,” Harmon wrote. “It is ordered that Plaintiff CNS’s employee assigned to the Harris County District Court be given access on the same day the petitions are filed.” She made an exception for TROs and case properly filed under seal.
     I described the ruling to our lawyers, Rachel Matteo-Boehm from Holme Roberts and Owen and John Edwards from Jackson & Walker, as a great cannon in our fight for access. Like any weapon, it must be used judiciously, sparingly and it must be well maintained.
     Harmon was appointed by George HW Bush and has a reputation as a conservative judge, so it made the ruling particularly strong. In covering the story for the Courthouse News website, we illustrated it with an image of a document, indeed a very important one, and its initiating words, “We the People.”
     As a judge noted in Los Angeles Superior Court — where a similar problem came up and has been at least partially resolved this week — the First Amendment says freedom of “the press,” contrary to a frequent argument from court bureaucrats, and even some reporters who have lost their way, saying the press is no different from the public.
     I explained to anyone who would listen in the L.A. matter that, while trying not to sound like a hopeless idealist, I believe our nation is a democracy, it is based on a founding document, that document mentions the press in a prominent spot and we in the press are part of the political system.
     After years of arguing with bureaucrats, I had forgotten those fundamentals.
     Harmon’s opinion reminded me. That old piece of parchment remains paramount.

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