Mar. 19—Maine courts have sped up access to new civil filings in the state's electronic records system in the face of a federal lawsuit, but the Portland Press Herald and other news organizations argue in a motion filed this week that the shorter waiting period is still unconstitutional.
Courthouse News Service, a national outlet that reports on civil court proceedings, filed a lawsuit last month to challenge a rule that would allow civil cases in Maine's electronic court records system to be kept from public eye for weeks or even months after they are filed. The companies that own the Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The court has also allowed the company that owns the Bangor Daily News to join the case.
Less than three weeks after the complaint was filed, the courts changed direction. A spokeswoman for the Maine Judicial Branch announced that new civil cases would be accessible online after they have been processed by the clerks.
The state then filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the issue had been addressed. That motion says any delay between filing and access should be "no more than four business hours except in extraordinary circumstances," although they cannot know for sure until the system has been fully implemented.
"A delay of a few hours poses no threat to Plaintiffs' interest in the newsworthiness of filed papers or, more importantly, to the public's ability to oversee the operations of the judicial system," the motion says.
The plaintiffs rejected that argument in Wednesday's motion for a preliminary injunction, saying the First Amendment should guarantee contemporaneous access to new filings. They also pointed to Georgia and California, which use the same system that Maine is implementing and created a no-cost "press review queue" so people can see electronic filings as soon as they come in. While even a delay of a few hours is unnecessary, the motion argues, the current policy could delay access for a day or a weekend depending on when a filing is submitted.
"There is no justification for delaying public access to court records, even for a few hours, to conduct processing activities that have nothing to do with any interest that could possibly override the value of open court proceedings," the motion says.
State officials have not explained the rationale behind the rule, which has never existed for paper files in courthouses, or the decision to change it. Amy Quinlan, the spokeswoman for the Judicial Branch, said Friday that "changes have been made" but she did not answer a question about a response the plaintiff's latest arguments.
Maine is in a years-long effort to shift court records from paper files to digital ones. In November, Bangor courts became the first to start using the electronic system for filing and viewing cases. Only some civil and family cases are online right now, but eventually, most criminal and civil cases across the state will be.
The news organizations do not seek access to documents that are considered confidential by statute, such as records of mental health civil proceedings. The lawsuit would only affect records deemed to be public.
The plaintiffs filed their complaint in the U.S. District Court in Bangor. The named defendants are Ted Glessner, the state court administrator, and Peter Schleck, the clerk of the Penobscot County Superior Court.
Separate from the lawsuit, public access advocates have also raised concerns that the fees for viewing electronic documents in Maine's new system provide a barrier to open access.