When a civil complaint is filed in state court, it is available immediately to the media and the general public, allowing communities to keep up in real time with how their legal system is being used.

A rule that allows civil cases in Maine’s electronic court records system to be secret for weeks or even months after they are filed is apparently the only one in the country. beeboys/Shutterstock.com

Now that those records are going digital, however, they may be kept hidden for weeks, even months, under a new policy from the Judicial Branch.

The new rule is simply absurd. It runs counter to the principles of open, democratic government, and it should be changed.

And it shouldn’t require a federal case to do so.

But with the Judicial Branch failing to guarantee public access to public records – again – no other avenue exists.

The parent company of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal this week joined a new federal lawsuit challenging the rule.

The suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Bangor by Courthouse News Service, a national outlet that reports on civil proceedings, argues that the rule violated the First Amendment, which guarantees the right of the press and the public to review and copy civil complaints, whose contents are often of public interest and consequence.

At issue in the suit are civil complaints filed in Bangor courts, which in November became the first in the state to use the new electronic system for filing and viewing cases.

Under rules finalized last summer by the Judicial Branch, civil cases filed in the electronic system will be available to the public until three business days after the court clerk’s office receives proof of service.

Plaintiffs typically have 90 days to serve a defendant; under the rule, the case could be hidden from public view the entire time.

That’s in stark contrast to the paper record system, under which records are available as soon as they were put on a court docket.

And it is an outlier. Maine is the only state with such a rule, according to the lawsuit. A similar requirement in Vermont was rescinded after a challenge by Courthouse News.

The purpose behind the new rule is not clear. The Maine Freedom of Information Coalition objected to a draft of the rule in 2019, but said it never received a response or an explanation. A Judicial Branch spokeswoman this week told the Press Herald she could not answer questions about the case.

There’s nothing defensible in the new rule. The court filings are public records, whether they are filed on paper or digitally. As Maine transitions to an electronic records system, the public should continue to have the same access to these records that they’ve always had.

It’s alarming that the Judicial Branch doesn’t feel the same way. As with the high fees it now charges for accessing online records, the Judicial Branch’s new rule makes it harder for the people to keep track of what their government is doing and what’s going on in their community.

A court order could nullify the new rule, as it did in Vermont.

But we’d prefer if the Judicial Branch reversed course on its own – and showed that this branch of government values government transparency.


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