The Bangor Daily News has joined a national legal news service, the Portland Press Herald and other Maine publications in a lawsuit over access to civil matters in the Maine court system’s recently implemented e-filing program.

The BDN’s complaint was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Bangor. It claims that the rules outlining when civil complaints are made public violates First Amendment right to access judicial records.

The state’s court system last year began implementing an electronic case filing system, beginning with civil, rather than criminal, matters. Under the rules for that system, newly filed civil complaints are not made public until three business days after the clerk’s office is notified that the defendants in the case have received the complaint.

Under the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff has 90 days from filing to serve the complaint on defendants. That means it could take more than three months for civil complaints to be made public.

Prior to the implementation of the e-filing system, copies of complaints filed on paper were available almost immediately after being docketed from clerks’ offices at courthouses throughout Maine.

Other court systems use the same software Maine has purchased, according to the complaint. But they “provide timely access through a ‘Press Review Queue’ feature that allows the press to view new complaints without waiting for court staff to process them first,” it says.

Maine’s is the last court system in the country to convert from paper to electronic documents. The pilot project for the e-filing system was launched last fall at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. It is expected to be implemented statewide over the next two years. Currently, only civil cases can be filed electronically.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Courthouse News Service, a national publication based in California focused on legal news, and the owners of the Press Herald, Sun Journal and other daily newspapers in Maine. The complaint was first filed Feb. 3 and seeks a preliminary injunction that would force Maine’s court system to change its rules.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen is expected to hold a hearing next month on the motion for the injunction.

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