Federal lawsuit over delayed access to Maine's digital civil court records dismissed

Jul. 17—A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that sought the immediate accessibility of civil matters in the Maine court system's e-filing program.

The complaint, filed in February, claimed that the rules outlining when civil complaints are made public violated the paper's First Amendment right to access judicial records. The complaint also sought a preliminary injunction that would force Maine's court system to change its rules.

The Bangor Daily News was a plaintiff in the lawsuit alongside Courthouse News Service —a national publication based in California focused on legal news — the owners of the Portland Press Herald and Lewiston Sun Journal, as well as other local newspapers in the state.

Under the rules for the state court system's electronic case filing system — which began implementation in 2020 — newly filed civil complaints were not made public until three business days after the clerk's office is notified that the defendants in the case have received the complaint.

However, under the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff had 90 days from filing to serve the complaint on defendants. That meant it could take more than three months for civil complaints to be made public.

Three weeks after the complaint was filed, the Maine Judicial Branch announced that new civil cases could be digitally accessed after the clerks had processed them — saying it should take no more than four business hours — and the state then filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the Portland Press Herald reported.

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torreson granted the state's motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Friday, saying in her order, "the Plaintiffs' challenge concerns the timing, not the denial, of public access. This distinction makes a difference," the Press Herald reported.

"The Plaintiffs' position is that anything short of immediate, on-receipt access violates their First Amendment rights. I disagree and so do most courts," Torresen wrote, adding, "there is no right of instantaneous access upon the court's receipt of new civil complaints," the newspaper reported.

Torreson also denied the plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction.