Courthouse News Service v. Schaefer, No. 20-1290 (4th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of a declaratory judgment holding that the clerks from two Virginia courts, that failed to make newly filed civil complaints timely available to the press and public, violated the First Amendment right of access to such documents.
As a preliminary matter, the court concluded that this case is not moot where, absent the relief Courthouse News sought, nothing bars the clerks from reverting to the allegedly unconstitutional rates of access in the future; the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the clerks' motion to abstain; and the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the clerks' motion to dismiss for misjoinder.
On the merits, the court applied the experience and logic test to Courthouse News' First Amendment right of access claim, concluding that the experience prong supports a First Amendment right of access to civil complaints, even before any judicial action in the case, and that public access to complaints logically plays a positive role in the functioning of the judicial process. Therefore, the press and public enjoy a First Amendment right of access to newly filed civil complaints. The court agreed with the district court's determination that the clerks violated Courthouse News' right of access to newly filed civil complaints.