A photo of the Federal Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia

Coalition joins Reporters Committee brief in 4th Circuit court records case

The North Carolina Open Government Coalition is urging a federal appeals court to overturn a lower court ruling that restricts public access to non-confidential court records.

In 2012, clerks of court in Virginia launched a program that provides electronic remote access to non-confidential court records and filings in Virginia civil cases. However, remote access is only available to Virginia-licensed attorneys and select government agencies. The program denies the same access to the public.

In 2018, Courthouse News Service, a nationwide wire service that reports on civil cases, filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Virginia asking a federal court to strike down the policy. CNS argued that the policy amounts to an unconstitutional speaker-based restriction on speech and violates the public’s qualified First Amendment right of access to court records. The district court judge denied CNS’s motion for summary judgment and granted summary judgment to the public officials who operate the remote access records management system. CNS appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit.

The Coalition joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and more than a dozen news organizations and transparency advocates asking the Fourth Circuit to overturn the district court’s decision.

The Coalition is a nonpartisan nonprofit that does not litigate cases. But where a pending matter could have implications for fair and equal access to government documents for North Carolina citizens, we are compelled to support parties like the Reporters Committee, who are on the side of robust public access to non-confidential records about the justice system.

If the Fourth Circuit upholds the lower court’s decision, then a select few Virginia lawyers and government officials will maintain remote, electronic access to public records of Virginia court cases, but the public will be shut out unless they can physically access a computer terminal in a county courthouse. North Carolina citizens should be concerned. If the Fourth Circuit’s rules that the policy is consistent with the First Amendment, then the case may provide a roadmap for restricting electronic access to court records.

Read or download the full brief below.

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