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Federal Circuit Resurrects Case By Maine Newspapers For Court Records Access

A federal appeals court has resurrected a dismissed lawsuit brought by several Maine newspapers who wanted earlier access to court records filed electronically.

Maine is in the process of rolling out a new electronic filing system that is being piloted for civil cases in Penobscot Superior Court before statewide rollout for all cases - civil and criminal. It would mean access to documents can be done online rather than actually going to a courthouse. Currently the default for filing motions and complaints is with actual paper and physical files, though some courts are using alternative electronic filing methods as a stop gap while the new efiling system is trialed in readiness for use state-wide.

The lawsuit concerns court rules that were subsequently changed about when the public and newspapers can have access to documents filed using the system. Initially it was set at three days after documents were submitted by an attorney. The rules were then changed to whenever it was entered by a clerk after a check that filing requirements were followed and any fees paid. The newspapers involved said that meant delays that violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The case was brought last year by the publishers of the Bangor Daily News, Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal against court administrators. However it was dismissed at federal district court, where trials are held, for failing to state a valid First Amendment claim and because it was moot - that the issue was no longer valid. That dismissal was reversed.

The lawsuit requesting a preliminary injunction was brought in federal district court in Maine and the dismissal appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. The First Circuit covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico and Rhode Island.

The narrow issue in the lawsuit is whether, and for how long, a delay between a filing being submitted and available for public access violates the First Amendment. It was also for the court to determine the legal standard to apply to the newspapers’ claim. The First Circuit narrowed the issue further because it was only to decide whether or not the case was properly or improperly dismissed by the Maine court. It decided that it was dismissed in error.

The reversal of the dismissal means the case is sent back to the lower court to discuss the issues further.


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