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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Judging Access to the Court System

A very curious lawsuit is currently playing out in Chicago, involving four different state and federal courts. It should be of interest to anyone who teaches or follows developments in First Amendment law, federal court abstention, or court administration. It’s also a fascinating example of judges being asked to decide what obligations the courts themselves owe to the public.

The case involves a First Amendment challenge to records access in the Cook County court system. Last November, the Courthouse News Service (CNS) filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Cook County clerk’s office and clerk Dorothy Brown, alleging that the clerk’s office was not immediately disclosing certain electronically filed complaints that were a matter of public record. The gist of the allegations is that lawsuits filed in hard copy are immediately accessible to journalists or any member of the public, but e-filed lawsuits must first be administratively processed, which can delay public access for days. CNS sought injunctive and declaratory relief.

The lawsuit came as Cook County was already struggling to bring its civil case filing system into alignment with the rest of the state. The Illinois Supreme Court set a date of January 1, 2018 for the county to make its system fully compatible, but granted a six-month extension at the end of December when it became apparent that the county and its vendor were nowhere close to meeting that deadline. (The county asked for a one-year extension, which was rejected.)  In granting the extension, the state supreme court announced that its own administrative staff would attend future implementation meetings to assure that the project was completed in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, Brown’s office responded to the CNS lawsuit by arguing that it has no First Amendment obligation to make any document public until it is “accepted for filing,” citing a standing order requiring the clerk’s office to remove certain categories of documents from the public domain. That argument was evidently unpersuasive. In early January, the federal district court granted a preliminary injunction to CNS, and gave Brown 30 days to create a system to allow the press to obtain immediate access to e-filed complaints. The district court held that “In the absence of an injunction, CNS will continue to be deprived of its First Amendment right of timely (immediate and contemporaneous) access to e-filed complaints."

From that point, it started to get really interesting.

Over the past several weeks, Dorothy Brown’s work life must have felt positively Shakespearean. In late January, she petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court again, asking for leniency with respect to the deadline for e-filing integration, and explicitly seeking permission to comply with the federal court order by making e-filed documents (including documents filed under seal) immediately available to the public. When the Supreme Court did not respond right away, Brown twice asked the federal district court to stay the injunction. Twice the court rejected her request, the second rejection coming on February 13.

Brown again took the offensive. Moments after the district court’s denial of her second motion, she filed a motion with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the district court should have declined to hear the case under the abstention doctrine in Younger v. Harris (1971), and instead should have referred the matter to an Illinois state judge. Brown also argued that her office had been wrongly sued, and that the proper defendants were the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts and the Office of the Cook County Chief Judge.

The Seventh Circuit has yet to rule on the Brown's motion. But the Illinois Supreme Court weighed in again on February 14, curtly denying Brown’s January petition without further comment.

What to make of this?

In some ways I feel bad for Dorothy Brown, who has portrayed herself (with some success) as a mere bureaucrat who is trying to follow conflicting sets of orders. There seems to be no question that her office is simply incapable of complying with the federal court’s e-filing order at this juncture. And the irony of Cook County’s paper filing system (which is by any account remarkably byzantine and chaotic) being more accessible than its e-filing system should not be lost on the observer.

But we should not pity Ms. Brown and her colleagues too much. While the causes of her office's dysfunction on this matter are not entirely clear, it would come as no surprise if they boiled down to some combination of inadequate resources, poor management, ordinary negligence, and politics. At the same time, if her office had shown expended half the time, energy, money and creativity in implementing a competent e-filing system as it has in defending this lawsuit in multiple courts, the issue probably would have been resolved long ago.

Posted by Jordan Singer on February 21, 2018 at 04:10 PM in Civil Procedure, First Amendment, Information and Technology, Judicial Process | Permalink

Comments

re "administrative staff would attend future implementation meetings to assure that the project was completed in a timely manner."

In English, this should read, "administrative staff would attend future implementation meetings to insure that the project be completed in a timely manner."

Posted by: jimbino | Feb 21, 2018 11:08:38 PM

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