Maine’s state court system said Monday it will speed up public access to digital civil court records after being sued in federal court by the Portland Press Herald and a national court news service.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether that announcement will remove all delays and resolve the pending lawsuit, however.

“We are pleased that the Maine courts will no longer require the press and the public to wait up to 90 days to review newly filed complaints,” said attorney Jeffrey Pyle, who is representing the news organizations. “However, the new rule still appears to build in delay for processing by the clerk. The First Amendment right of access attaches upon the court’s receipt of a document. Therefore, this amended rule is still unconstitutional.”

Courthouse News Service, a national outlet that reports on civil court proceedings, filed the complaint earlier this month to challenge a rule that would allow civil cases in Maine’s electronic court records system to be kept from public eye for weeks or even months after they are filed. The companies that own the Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The company that owns the Bangor Daily News filed a motion to intervene alongside the other news organizations last week.

Court officials have not answered questions about the reason for the rule, which has never existed for paper files in courthouses. Amy Quinlan, a spokesperson for the Maine Judicial Branch, announced the latest change in a news release Monday. She did not respond to an email seeking comment on the pending lawsuit and asking why the court made the amendment. The notice said the change would take effect March 15 to allow time for technical programming.

“The Rules of Electronic Court Systems were drafted to facilitate public access to the courts and court records in the electronic environment with two equally important goals in mind: providing maximum reasonable public access to court records, and minimizing the risk of harm to individuals and entities involved in court proceedings,” the news release said.

The news release also called the rollout of the electronic records system “an evolving process.”

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court signed off on the amendment Monday.

Maine is in a years-long effort to shift court records from paper files to digital ones. In November, Bangor courts became the first to start using the electronic system for filing and viewing cases. Only some civil and family cases are online right now, but eventually, most criminal and civil cases across the state will be.

The Judicial Branch finalized the rules for electronic filing last summer. That document says no civil case will be accessible to the public until three business days after the clerk’s office receives proof of service. Plaintiffs typically have 90 days to serve a defendant, so a case could be hidden from the public eye for that entire time.

The news organizations argue that delaying access to new cases violates the First Amendment, which guarantees the press and public the right to review and copy such records, including civil complaints. They have asked a federal court to grant a preliminary injunction to block the rule while the case moves forward.

Their complaint does not seek access to documents that are considered confidential by statute, such as records of mental health civil proceedings. The lawsuit would only affect records deemed to be public.

Maine is the only state with such a rule, the court filing says. Vermont implemented a similar requirement in 2017, and that state’s top court quickly rescinded it after a similar legal challenge by Courthouse News.

The plaintiffs filed their complaint in the U.S. District Court in Bangor. The named defendants are Ted Glessner, the state court administrator, and Peter Schleck, the clerk of the Penobscot County Superior Court. They have not yet filed any response to the lawsuit. The case is scheduled for an attorney conference next week.

Separate from the lawsuit, public access advocates have also raised concerns that the fees for viewing electronic documents in Maine’s new system provide a barrier to open access.

The Judicial Branch also announced Monday that it has created a new portal for feedback on the digital system. People can submit their comments by email at [email protected] or by calling (207) 561-2313.

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