Courthouse News Service v. Planet, No. 11-57187 (9th Cir. 2014)Annotate this Case
CNS filed suit against defendant, the Executive Officer/Clerk of the Ventura County Superior Court, alleging that the Ventura County Superior Court's failure to provide same-day access to newly filed unlimited civil complaints violated its right of access to public judicial proceedings under the First Amendment. On appeal, CNS challenged the district court's order dismissing his complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief. The district court granted defendant's motion to abstain from hearing the case under Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., and O'Shea v. Littleton, which permitted the federal district courts to decline to decide matters over which they have jurisdiction but which implicated sensitive state interests. The court concluded that CNS's First Amendment right of access claim fell within the general rule against abstaining under Pullman in First Amendment cases. Though the government may sometimes withhold information without violating the expressive rights protected by the First Amendment, the First Amendment right of access to public proceedings was inextricably intertwined with the First Amendment right of free speech. It was well-established that the right of access to public records and proceedings was necessary to the enjoyment of the right to free speech. CNS's right of access claim implicated the same fundamental First Amendment interests as a free expression claim, and it equally commanded the respect and attention of the federal courts. Under either de novo review or the de novo component of the modified abuse of discretion standard applicable in most abstention cases, the court concluded that O'Shea abstention was also improper. An injunction requiring the Ventura County Superior Court to provide same-day access to filed unlimited civil complaints posed little risk of an ongoing federal audit or a major continuing intrusion of the equitable power of the federal courts into the daily conduct of state proceedings. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded.
Court Description: Civil Rights. The panel reversed the district court’s dismissal of a complaint and remanded in an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by a news organization alleging that the Ventura County Superior Court’s failure to provide same-day access to newly filed unlimited civil complaints violated the news organization’s right of access to public judicial proceedings under the First Amendment. The panel held that the district court erred by abstaining from hearing the case under Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941), and O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488 (1974). The panel held that this case presented an important First Amendment question involving the right of access to public records and proceedings that should be decided by the federal courts and that plaintiff’s requested relief would not excessively intrude on sensitive state functions. The panel noted that there may be limitations on the public’s right of access to judicial proceedings, and mandating same-day viewing of unlimited civil complaints may be one of them, but the panel declined to take a position on the ultimate merits of plaintiff’s claims, which the district court had yet to address in the first instance.