Courthouse News Service (“CNS”) filed a lawsuit against Michael Planet, who is the clerk for Ventura Superior Court, challenging the Court’s policy regarding access to filed civil complaints. According to the policy, the Court can delay the press’s access to newly filed complaints until it enters the filings into a case management system. CNS argued that access to the filings was sometimes delayed for more than thirty days, when the matters were no longer newsworthy, in violation of its First Amendment right to same day access to public judicial proceedings. However, the district court judge abstained from ruling on the matter pursuant to the abstention doctrine. The abstention doctrine permits federal courts to refuse to hear cases that concern federal issues if a state-based legal principle can resolve the issue.
CNS appealed the district court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit and argued that the federal court should decide the First Amendment issue, not the state. Counsel for the California courts argued that the district court was correct in abstaining from ruling on the matter because press access to court filings involves a sensitive matter of state policy, particularly allocation of resources. The Ninth Circuit did not agree. Rather, the Ninth Circuit held that same day access to court filings implicates First Amendment issues and should be decided by the federal courts. The Court reasoned that access to judicial filings is essential to both the free expression of the press and the public, and noted that the right of access to public records and proceedings is well established and essential to the enjoyment of free expression. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal on the basis that the district court inappropriately applied the abstention doctrine to the First Amendment issue and held that the district court was required to rule on whether the delay in access to filings violated CNS’s First Amendment right. Thus, the Ninth Circuit’s decision prevents litigants from avoiding First Amendment challenges based on the abstention doctrine.