A federal judge in Virginia has concluded that there is a qualified right to review state court civil complaints immediately after they are filed. The judge’s ruling came after the Courthouse News Service sued Virginia state court officials, alleging that court clerks in two counties were instructed not to provide access to new complaints until the documents had been scanned and uploaded to a public access terminal.
The federal court declined to issue an injunction in the case, noting that state court officials appeared to be trying to comply with their obligations in good faith. The court required the parties to appear for a joint status conference in August to discuss the level of access provided by the defendants.
There is always a certain tension between the public’s right to know about civil cases brought in its court system, and respect for private litigants. But there is no question that the right balance here falls in favor of First Amendment rights. Litigants are free to seek orders that seal or otherwise protect their court filings in appropriate circumstances.