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Publisher sues Iowa court officials over records delays
Claim: Lawsuits kept ‘often for days or over a week’ before being made public
By Clark Kauffman - Iowa Capital Dispatch
May. 24, 2023 9:40 am
An Iowa newspaper chain is suing the state court administrator over delays in making public civil-court filings.
Lee Enterprises, a Davenport-based publisher, and Courthouse News Service are suing Iowa State Court Administrator Robert Gast and Polk County Clerk of Court Anne Sheeley in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.
The lawsuit alleges that Iowa’s state court system has a policy and practice of withholding public access to new, electronically filed petitions in civil-court cases until they have been administratively processed by the court staff. These petitions “reside, often for days or over a week, in an electronic database where they are withheld from public view while awaiting manual processing,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit notes that in years past, when lawyers filed court petitions with their county clerks of court, the filings would immediately be deposited into a basket where reporters or members of the public could look though each day’s filings to determine whether there were any new cases of public interest.
“Traditional access was the norm in Iowa,” the lawsuit states. “Journalists and the public could review the new civil petitions in a wire tray kept at the corner of the filing counter on the ground floor of the Polk County Courthouse as soon as they were file-stamped. In the transition from paper filing to electronic filing, federal courts and many state courts kept the tradition in place, making complaints available as they crossed the virtual intake counter. However, the Iowa state courts, including Polk County District Court, did not.”
The plaintiffs argue that “nothing prevents a clerk from processing a petition at the very moment members of the press or public are reading it, and nothing prevents a clerk from processing a petition after review by the press or public, when the clerk’s schedule permits.”
Courthouse News alleges that last September, it wrote to Gast and proposed a solution to the delays in public access. Gast responded seven months later, in April, “and provided no commitment to resolve the delays,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit claims the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides the press and public with a qualified right of access to civil petitions at the moment they are deposited with the clerk of court. Government agencies have the burden of showing that any policies that cause delays in access are essential to preserve an overriding governmental interest and are narrowly tailored to serve that interest, the attorneys for Lee and Courthouse News argue.
The plaintiffs cite the fact that in federal court, and in state courts outside of Iowa, newly filed civil petitions are available to the press and public on receipt and before any processing by the courts.
The defendants have yet to file a response to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks judgment against the state court administrator and Polk County clerk of court and a declaration that their policies are unconstitutional, as well as a preliminary and permanent injunction prohibiting them from continuing their practices.
Courthouse News is a nationwide news service that employs roughly 240 people in covering state and federal trial and appellate courts in all 50 states. Lee Enterprises is one of the largest newspaper publishers in the United States. In Iowa, it publishes the Sioux City Journal, Muscatine Journal, the Quad-City Times in Davenport, the Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, the Globe Gazette in Mason City and The Courier in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. The Gazette has a news content-sharing agreement with Lee, and the publishers jointly operate a Des Moines bureau.
This article first appeared in the Iowa Capital Dispatch.