Saturday, September 30, 2023
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What Difference|Does It Make?

In the Ninth Circuit the other day, a judge asked some basic questions. They had to do with news and time.

"To be candid with you, I can't imagine people being interested in this," Judge John Noonan said. "If you would tell me that some newspapers are interested. Who wants to know."

He was talking about lawsuits filed in Ventura.

Courthouse News has challenged the Ventura clerk over delays in press access to new actions, delays that currently run three court days on average, with an intervening weekend more often than not. Big cases often take much longer.

The judge's question about those cases can fairly be reduced to, "Who cares?"

So I looked over the new cases filed in Ventura over the last few months.

I saw a derivative action against Amgen over kickbacks paid to drug buyers. That is news.

Except that the court did not let us see the complaint until almost two months after it was filed, when it was no longer news.

I saw a complaint by a 100-year-old water company for Ojai suing to stop the neighboring Casitas water district from taking it over through eminent domain, represented by Manatt Phelps. That case is local news.

But it was almost a month before the clerk let us see the case.

The city of Buenaventura filed an action against the local water district for charging municipal pumpers three times what it charged agricultural pumpers. That's news. One week delay.

A water ranch sued Ventura for allowing a paintball park to be set up in an agricultural district. Not big news, but interesting to folks in Ventura. Two weeks.

A Ventura man said he wrote a jingle for MetroPCS with computer sounds and the phrase "Hello, hello, hello" coupled with the motto "Wireless for all." He says he submitted it online, MetroPCS is using it and never paid him.

It's not a huge case, but it's interesting. It's news. Three day delay.

In looking over the cases, I was surprised at the quality of the litigation in Ventura with actions against Costco, Starbucks, Dow Chemical, SoCal Edison, Charles Schwab, Dairy Farmers of America, Staples, CVS and Verizon.

So it is for good reason that the subscribers to our Central Coast report include just about every big firm in the state, from Gibson Dunn to O'Melveny to Reed Smith to Latham.

Do the cases I've outlined fit the definition of news? Sure.

People will read about them. Lawyers, who are included in that larger group, are certainly interested, and -- the ultimate test for a news publisher -- they are willing to pay for a publication reporting on that news.

Now, it's true that we don't see the Ventura County Star-Free Press checking the new filings. But the court has made it all but impossible for a local paper to do that job.

That ties into Judge Noonan's second basic question, about news and time.

"If they don't get it the same day, but get it two days or three or four days later, what difference does it make?" the judge asked.

He asked a second time in a loud voice, "What difference does it make!"

I put it to my Aunt Carole who is from Noonan's generation. Her answer was crisp, "A lot can happen in two days."

That's the nub of it. Events flow in a daily stream. Those of yesterday are surpassed by those of today.

A local reporter cannot sell an editor on yesterday's news. But the reporter can indeed sell a story about a hot complaint filed today.

When we had a similar battle in Orange County years ago, an L.A. Times reporter did a quick study of her own paper's morgue of past articles. She demonstrated to her editors that coverage of newly filed actions dropped to near-zero after that court started delaying access by one day and then two.

So let's take a local reporter for the Ventura paper.

That reporter would have a tough time selling an editor on a story that happened three days ago let alone last week or last month.

That hot case is no longer hot.

But it's more than that.

In order to see all of the roughly 10 unlimited cases filed on an average day, our reporter in Ventura has to chase many of the cases with individual requests.

The court limits the number of cases you can request to five and you have to go back to the end of the line to ask for the next five. Only to find that many are still not available.

So the whole process starts over the next day, as the list of missing cases grows.

No local reporter will spend that much time chasing old news.

By contrast, journalists will flock to the access when it's good.

I was talking with our reporter in Portland last week and she told me that all three local papers in Portland come into the clerk's office every day and check the new actions for news, Willamette Week, Portland Mercury and The Oregonian.

That's because Multnomah County Superior Court provides top class, traditional, complete, same-day access to the newly filed actions.

And that's why our case against Ventura is a First Amendment case.

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