The Bangor Daily News has joined a national legal news service and other Maine publications in a lawsuit over the accessibility of civil matters in the Maine court system’s recently implemented e-filing program.
The BDN’s complaint was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Bangor. It claims that the rules outlining when civil complaints are made public violates the paper’s First Amendment right to access judicial records.
The state’s court system last year began implementing an electronic case filing system, beginning with civil, rather than criminal, matters. Under the rules for that system, newly filed civil complaints are not made public until three business days after the clerk’s office is notified that the defendants in the case have received the complaint.
Under the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff has 90 days from filing to serve the complaint on defendants. That means it could take more than three months for civil complaints to be made public.
Prior to the implementation of the e-filing system, copies of complaints filed on paper were available almost immediately after being docketed from clerks’ offices at courthouses throughout Maine.
Other court systems use the same software Maine has purchased, according to the complaint. But they “provide timely access through a ‘Press Review Queue’ feature that allows the press to view new complaints without waiting for court staff to process them first,” it says.
Maine’s is the last court system in the country to convert from paper to electronic documents. The pilot project for the e-filing system was launched last fall at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. It is expected to be implemented statewide over the next two years. Currently, only civil cases can be filed electronically.
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Courthouse News Service, a national publication based in California focused on legal news, and the owners of the Portland Press Herald, Sun Journal and other daily newspapers in Maine. The complaint was first filed Feb. 3 and seeks a preliminary injunction that would force Maine’s court system to change its rules.
U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen is expected to hold a hearing next month on the motion for the injunction.
Dan MacLeod, managing editor for the BDN, said in an affidavit filed with the complaint that stories from civil complaints can be of major importance to the general public.
“In recent years, lawsuits concerning Medicaid expansion, Central Maine Power Co.’s New England Clean Energy Connect project and a host of other public policy topics have gone through the Maine civil courts,” he said. “These are matters of high concern to the general public, as they concern their health coverage, and the environmental and economic stakes of a major power development project. The public deserves prompt information in those and other situations.”
MacLeod also said that the court’s delay in making a civil complaint public might keep it from coming to light at all if the matter is quickly settled and the case is closed.
“Over the past few years the BDN has reported on a state senator accused of raiding his family businesses for his own benefit, a law enforcement officer who was sued for his role in a shooting, a doctor who cut off the wrong toe in a surgery, and a power struggle at the largest company in Piscataquis County, which produces crucial swabs needed nationally to test for COVID-19,” he said. “All of those stories were produced with documents filed in Maine Superior Courts, and all were important to the communities the BDN serves.”