Federal judge rules Virginia’s restricted access to court records violates First Amendment
A district court judge in Virginia on Friday found Virginia’s online civil court system violated First Amendment rights of the press and public because of the system’s restricted access to newly filed civil complaints.
The Officer of the Court Remote Access (OCRA) system makes civil filings available to attorneys through a per-court subscription fee. Authorized users can access filings from the courts they are subscribed to. The public and news outlets cannot use OCRA. Instead, non-attorneys need to physically go to the courts to access the documents. Approximately 90 of the 120 courts in Virginia use OCRA.
Courthouse News Services (CNS) filed the lawsuit against Karl R. Hade, executive secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and Jacqueline C. Smith, clerk of the Circuit Court for Prince William County, VA. In the lawsuit, CNS asserted that Hade and Smith have power to grant the public and news outlets digital access to civil complaints and that withholding this access violates the First Amendment.
In the opinion, Judge Henry Hudson wrote, “It is well-settled that the press and public have a right of access to most, if not all, civil court records.” Hudson explained that excluding non-attorneys from having online access to civil filings is “not narrowly tailored to preserve a significant governmental interest and thus could violate the First Amendment.”
Ryan Abbot, CNS bureau chief, responded positively to the ruling, stating, “An attorney can fire up their computer and see complaints from across the state in minutes while reporters have to drive hundreds of miles in a day only to make it to a number of courthouses you could count on one hand. That’s restricting access and violating the First Amendment.”
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