Maine newspapers and a national legal news service are trying again to win faster public access to civil complaints filed in the state’s electronic court records system.

Courthouse News Service, a national news outlet that reports on civil court proceedings, filed a federal lawsuit last year challenging a rule that would have allowed civil cases filed online to be kept from public eye for weeks or even months after they are filed. The companies that own the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit, as is the Bangor Daily News.

Less than three weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the Maine Judicial Branch changed direction on the rule. The rule now says that civil complaints will be available online after they are processed by clerks. The state then filed a motion that said the issue had been addressed, and U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen agreed to dismiss the case.

But the news organizations argued that even a delay for processing time could violate their rights under the First Amendment, which guarantee the media and the public the ability to review and copy such records. They asked the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston to overturn Torresen’s decision. A panel of three appellate judges heard oral arguments in the case Wednesday.

“This court should hold that the public and the press have a First Amendment right to timely access of newly filed civil complaints,” said attorney Barbara Smith, representing the media companies. Smith defined “timely access” as the point when a clerk’s office receives the complaint and not after the clerk performs “ministerial” tasks like reviewing the complaint for bar numbers and attorney signatures.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Knowlton told the appeals court Wednesday that the Maine Judicial Branch agrees with the district court’s decision to dismiss, and that Maine courts have been balancing First Amendment rights of the press with the need to screen and verify court documents.

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Maine is in a years-long process of shifting court records from paper files to digital ones. In November 2020, Bangor courts became the first to start using the electronic system for filing and viewing cases. The rollout to other courts is ongoing.

Most of the questions from the 1st Circuit judges Wednesday focused on what level of screening should be appropriate before filings are made public, and how that differs in an electronic system from a traditional paper system still used by most of the state.

“I’m still trying to figure out what you consider a permissible level of screening before it goes to the press. I mean, there has to be some type of screening,” Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson said.

The lawsuit applies to Penobscot County Superior Court and Bangor District Court, both of which are participating in an e-filing pilot for civil cases and family matters.

It’s unclear when the court will make a decision on the appeal.


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