California-based Courthouse News Service is suing the Maryland Judiciary and 22 clerks of circuit court over what the company claims is a delay in making recently filed lawsuits available to the public.
In a filing in U.S. District Court of Maryland, Courthouse News Service, or CNS, claims the Judiciary and clerks of court are violating the First Amendment because the clerks sometimes take more than a day to process newly filed lawsuits before making them available for public review.
“Since time beyond memory, the press has reviewed new civil complaints minutes after they crossed the intake counter on the day of filing prior to docketing in courts across the country,” CNS’ lawyers wrote.
Based in Pasadena, California, CNS is a news wire service covering court proceedings in all 50 states.
In most cases, courthouse records, especially civil cases like lawsuits, are available upon request immediately after being filed. In Maryland, the process can take more than a day because clerks are docketing them, meaning they catalog them and enter them into the system.
CNS claims a quarter of all lawsuits filed in Maryland aren’t available for public review until at least two days after being filed.
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A spokesperson for the Judiciary declined to comment or to answer questions about the process of making records available, saying the agency could not speak about pending litigation.
Besides Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, all of Maryland’s circuit courts make filings available to the public electronically . Other states with electronic filing systems, and the federal courts, make documents available immediately upon filing and do not delay their access for processing, according to CNS’ complaint.
In the past, CNS has successfully sued other states that have delayed the availability of filings, claiming the delay breached the First Amendment’s right to access government records.
Before suing the Maryland Judiciary and most of the state’s clerks of court, CNS sent emails requesting the state make changes to this procedure, according to court filings.
The Judiciary denied CNS’ request, with an official claiming it violated the Maryland Rules of Procedure, according to an email attached to the complaint as an exhibit. The official, assistant public information officer Terri Charles, wrote in the letter denying CNS’ requests that the request was moot because the public does have access to the records, even if it is delayed.
The company that manages Maryland’s online court records, Tyler Technologies, has implemented similar changes in other states, including California, Georgia and Nevada. The change to the record management software would not cost the state anything, CNS claims, and would broaden access to court proceedings for journalists and the public at large.
“Delays in access undermine the benefit of public scrutiny and may have the same result as complete suppression, as the newsworthiness of a new filing quickly declines with time, particularly in the digital age where there is a 24/7 news cycle,” CNS’ attorneys wrote.