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10th Circuit: NM courts can’t withhold public access to filings

On Behalf of | Feb 13, 2023 | Freedom Of Information

The modern news cycle moves fast. What seems a critical issue today is often eclipsed by tomorrow. Reporters need access to accurate information fast.

Our courts are a big part of that. Reporters routinely come to the courts to find out about recent lawsuits that are newsworthy. They comb through each filing. Indeed, reporters have a First Amendment right to freely access public court filings, and almost all court filings are public.

That First Amendment right to freedom of the press is crucial to our democracy. It allows people like journalists and interest groups to find out what our courts are up to and what they are being used for. It ultimately allows the press to report on whether justice is being done in our courts.

New Mexico’s state court administrators have been limiting press access to court filings. They made a rule that the press could not access court filings until five hours after they were filed. This meant the majority of all cases filed in New Mexico courts were not available to reporters until the next day.

That greatly reduced the filings’ newsworthiness. It made reporting slower. It kept some reporters from bothering with them and thus deprived New Mexicans of the information.

The reason for the delay was that the court clerks wanted those five hours to do their administrative work and accept the filing into the court system. The court administrators’ rule was therefore that court filings are not public until they are accepted, not when they are filed.

Appeals court rules the press has the right to access upon filing

In defense of a federal civil rights lawsuit earlier this year, the court administrators made two arguments:

  • The New Mexico courts’ rule is reasonable and doesn’t deprive the press of any meaningful benefit
  • The federal courts should stay out of New Mexico’s business

The federal trial court ruled against the court administrators on both. The court administrators appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

This court is one of 12 appeals courts in the U.S. and is the one that covers New Mexico. It also ruled against the court administrators on both arguments.

“Here, we conclude that the district court did not err in concluding that a First Amendment right to access civil complaints attaches when the complaint is filed (or submitted) to the court,” reads the opinion.

Since access to lawsuits upon filing is a constitutional right, New Mexico’s courts can’t make rules that violate that right.

Furthermore, among the 12 circuits, courts in four have rejected the argument that federal courts have no business interfering with New Mexico’s internal court rules. That now includes the 10th Circuit.