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Case Number: 21-1624
Court: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maine (Cumberland County)
Plaintiff's Attorney: Barbara A. Smith, Jeffrey J. Pyle, Sigmund D. Schutz, Barnard J. Kubetz, Bruce D. Brown, KatieTownsend and Shannon A. Jankowsky for Plaintiffs and Appellants
Defendant's Attorney: Thomas A. Knowlton, Aaron M. Frey, Jason Anton, Joshua D. Dunlap, Peter J. Guffin, and Laura M. O'Hanlon for Defendants and Appellees
Description: Portland, Maine constitutional law lawyers represented Plaintiffs who sued Defendants on a First Amendment violation theory seeking injunctive relief.
When the Maine Supreme Judicial
Court (SJC) piloted an electronic case filing system for the
state's trial courts, its original rules required court clerks to
withhold public access to new civil complaints until three business
days after at least one defendant had been served, resulting in
delayed access, possibly for months. On February 3, 2021, a group
of Maine newspapers and a national legal media company sued a pair
of state court officials, alleging that such delayed access
violated the First Amendment. The SJC then changed its rules to
eliminate the specific timeframe for providing access. Instead
of delineating a new deadline, it now allows the public to access
newly filed civil complaints after court clerks process them. The
rules do not specify how quickly that processing must occur.
The plaintiffs filed first amended complaints alleging
that, despite that change, the rules still imposed significant
delays on accessing newly filed civil complaints. They sought a
preliminary injunction. The defendants sought dismissal of the
amended complaints, asserting that the plaintiffs had failed to
state a plausible First Amendment claim. In their response to the
motion for a preliminary injunction, the defendants disputed the
plaintiffs' assertion of undue delays.
The district court held that the plaintiffs had failed
to state a claim, dismissed the complaint, and denied the motion
for a preliminary injunction as moot. Courthouse News Serv. v.
* * *
Neither this court nor the Supreme Court has recognized
any right under the First Amendment to access documents filed in civil cases.7 The parties agree that there is a qualified First
Amendment right in the public to access newly filed complaints.
See Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Ct. ("Press-Enterprise II"),
478 U.S. 1, 10–11 (1986). But see El Dia, Inc. v. Hernandez Colon,
963 F.2d 488, 495 (1st Cir. 1992) (expressing doubt as to extension
of qualified public right of access to civil proceedings).8 Where
they differ is on when, and to what, the right attaches. The
defendants claim the right does not attach until a rules-compliant
complaint is processed, but the plaintiffs claim that the right
attaches at the time a complaint (even if it is ultimately non-
conforming) is filed. We need not decide that quarrel here because
the defendants concede that some level of First Amendment scrutiny
applies to evaluate whether the time from submission of the
complaint to when public access is available is contemporaneous
enough. The question raised by the plaintiffs' first amended
complaints thus remains whether the time between submission and
provision of public access here passes First Amendment scrutiny.
* * *
Third, we caution that the plaintiffs may obtain relief
only if they establish that the court officials violate the First
Amendment, not merely state law, in delaying their access to
complaints. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465
U.S. 89, 106 (1984); Doe v. Shibinette, 16 F.4th 894, 903–04 (1st
Cir. 2021). If any timelines for providing complaints established
under state law are constitutionally sufficient, then state
officials' failure to adhere to them is a matter for the state
Outcome: Vacated and remanded.