On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit issued an important opinion concerning the First Amendment in Courthouse News Service v. Michael Planet (Apr. 8, 2014 11-57187). Courthouse News Service (“CNS”) had filed the lawsuit against the Ventura Superior Court’s clerk, Michael Planet, challenging the Ventura Court’s policy delaying prompt access to newly filed civil complaints. CNS alleged that in some case access was delayed by over 30 days. CNS argued that it had a First Amendment right to same day access to those filings. District Judge Manuel L. Real had abstained from ruling on the dispute pursuant to the abstention doctrine established in Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941). The Pullman abstention doctrine allows federal courts to decline to hear cases concerning federal issues where the case can also be resolved with reference to a state-based legal principle. Judge Real also abstained from hearing the case on the grounds that the relief sought by CNS was an unwarranted intrusion by the federal judiciary with the orderly administration of the superior court and the spending priorities of the California judiciary.
In an opinion authored by Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw, the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal. It held that use of the Pullman abstention doctrine was not appropriate in the context of this First Amendment dispute. In underscoring the important First Amendment principles raised by CNS’s allegations, the Ninth Circuit noted that the right of the press to access judicial filings is “essential not only to its own free expression but also to the public’s.” In reversing Judge Real’s decision, the Ninth Circuit did not rule that CNS has the First Amendment right to same day access to court filings. However, it did rule that the district court must hear the case on the merits and was not entitled to abstain from ruling under the Pullman abstention doctrine. Although the Ninth Circuit did not reach the merits of CNS’ First Amendment claims, this is nonetheless an important First Amendment case because it curtailed the ability of defendants to avoid or defer First Amendment challenges based on the Pullman abstention doctrine.
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