Court system reverses rule on access to civil complaints following lawsuit
By Judy Harrison, Bangor Daily News Staff
The Maine court system will make civil complaints available immediately through its new electronic case filing system beginning March 15 after being sued in federal court by the Bangor Daily News, a national legal news service and other Maine publications in a lawsuit over the accessibility to documents.
Dan MacLeod, managing editor for the BDN, praised the court’s decision.
“We’re pleased that the court’s decision appears to make civil court records more accessible to the public,” he said. “We hope any future changes to the system will be enacted in the spirit of transparency.”
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 were not made public until three business days after the clerk’s office was notified that the defendants in the case had 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 have taken 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.
Amy Quinlan, spokesperson for the court, announced the change Feb. 21.
She did not comment on how much the pending litigation influenced the court system’s decision.
She said it would take until March 15 to make the necessary changes to the program.
“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,” she said.
Lawyers for Courthouse News, the California-based legal news service that sued the Maine court system with Maine newspapers, welcomed Monday’s change but said court system rules still build in a delay for processing time by court clerk.
“The First Amendment right of access attaches upon the court’s receipt of a document,” said Jeff Pyle, a Boston-based lawyer. “Therefore, this amended rule is still unconstitutional.”