A judge has dismissed a federal lawsuit seeking immediate public access to civil cases in Maine’s electronic court records system.

Courthouse News Service, a national outlet that reports on civil court proceedings, filed a lawsuit in February to challenge a rule that originally would have allowed 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 also were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, as was the Bangor Daily News.

The news organizations argued that delaying access to new cases violates the First Amendment, which guarantees the media and the public the right to review and copy such records, including civil complaints.

Maine is in a years-long process of shifting 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.

The Judicial Branch finalized the rules for electronic filing last summer. That document said no civil case would 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.

Less than three weeks after the complaint was filed, a spokeswoman for the Maine Judicial Branch announced that new civil cases would be accessible online after they have been processed by the clerks.

The state then filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the issue had been addressed. That motion said any delay between filing and access should be “no more than four business hours except in extraordinary circumstances,” although they cannot know for sure until the system has been fully implemented.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint and denied as moot the plaintiffs’ motions for a preliminary injunction.

In her order, Torresen said that there is a First Amendment right of public access to civil complaints, but she said “the Plaintiffs’ challenge concerns the timing, not the denial, of public access. This distinction makes a difference.”

Torresen found that electronic court systems are generally tailored in the interest of orderly administration of justice.

“The Plaintiffs’ position is that anything short of immediate, on-receipt access violates their First Amendment rights. I disagree and so do most courts,” Torresen wrote.

Torresen concluded that “although there is a First Amendment qualified right of timely access to newly filed civil complaints, there is no right of instantaneous access upon the court’s receipt of new civil complaints.”

Amy Quinlan, spokeswoman for the Maine Judicial Branch, could not be reached after business hours on Friday to discuss the ruling.

“This ruling involves fundamental First Amendment issues. We disagree with this outcome,” said attorney Jeffrey Pyle, who argued on behalf of the Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and the Sun Journal.

In a release announcing the new rule in February, a spokeswoman for the Maine Judicial Branch said the court system was trying to provide “maximum reasonable public access to court records and minimizing the risk of harm to individuals and entities involved in court proceedings.” The documents are now available three business days after clerks have checked that the filing had all the information required, such as the Maine Bar registration number of the lawyer filing it and the payment of various fees.

During a court hearing in June, Pyle said that the delay for processing could still prevent the public and the media from accessing a new filing until the next day or even over the weekend. He said that of the 26 new complaints filed in the Bangor court since the rule took effect, nearly one-quarter were not available until the next business day.


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