Courthouse News Service v. Joan Gilmer, No. 21-2632 (8th Cir. 2022)Annotate this Case
Plaintiff Courthouse News is a national “news service that reports on civil litigation in state and federal courts throughout the country.” When Missouri switched to an e-filing system, same-day access became the exception, not the rule. Newly filed petitions remain unavailable until court staff processes them, which can sometimes take “a week or more.” Courthouse News sued the Circuit Clerk for St. Louis County and the Missouri State Courts Administrator, alleging First Amendment violations. In their motion to dismiss Defendants asked the district court to either abstain under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), or rule that Courthouse News’s complaint failed to state a First Amendment claim. The district court decided to abstain and never ruled on the merits.
At issue on appeal is: First, does sovereign immunity protect state-court officials who run an e-filing system that delays public access to newly filed civil petitions? Second, should federal courts abstain from hearing this type of case anyway? The Eighth Circuit reversed concluding that the answer to both is no. The court explained that the case-at-issue does not resemble the classic Younger situation: a litigant runs to federal court to cut off an impending or actual state-court proceeding that is unlikely to go well. Here, the dispute about who gets to see newly filed petitions and when, and neither is the subject of any pending state-court proceeding. The court reasoned that if Courthouse News eventually prevails on its constitutional claim, declaratory relief would mitigate this concern to some degree by giving Missouri courts “the widest latitude in the ‘dispatch of [their] own internal affairs.’”