Courthouse News Serv. v. Yamasaki

Decision Date09 May 2018
Docket NumberCase No. SACV 17–00126 AG (KESx)
Parties COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE, Plaintiff, v. David YAMASAKI, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Central District of California

Golareh Mahdavi, Rachel E. Matteo–Boehm, Roger R. Myers, James Goldberg, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, San Francisco, CA, John W. Amberg, Nancy Franco, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, Santa Monica, CA, Jonathan G. Fetterly, Katherine A. Keating, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP, San Francisco, CA, for Plaintiff.

Robert A. Naeve, Brianne Jackson Kendall, Cary Donahue Sullivan, Jaclyn B. Stahl, Irvine, CA, Craig E. Stewart, Nathaniel P. Garrett, San Francisco, CA, for Defendant.

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S SUMMARY JUDGMENT MOTION

Hon. Andrew J. Guilford, United States District Judge

"Extra! Extra! Read all about it! " This iconic news entreaty evokes images of a distant past, before the internet, television, and radio, when the news was reported on pieces of paper. These aptly called newspapers were printed by a set time each day. New stories that broke after that time would generally appear in the next day's edition. But sometimes newspapers would publish an extra edition because something so momentous or sensational had happened that people would willingly buy a second paper to read all about it. Breaking news in the digital age is a much looser concept than in the days of newspaper extras. If it were still announced by street vendor clamors, the resulting cacophony would be intolerable. In reality, since people can manage their notification updates, the noise is much easier to ignore.

This case calls for a reflection on the meaning of news, both breaking and not, and the obligations that the United States Constitution imposes on the government in society's ever more demanding quest for news. It asks what burdens the justice system must bear and what risks it must take to provide access to information in the name of "news." The importance of this dispute is reflected in the rather voluminous extra documents that have been filed for the pending summary judgment motion, including one amici curiae brief filed on behalf of the Orange County Bar Association, National Association of Women Lawyers, Family Violence Appellate Project, Legal Aid Society of Orange County, Public Law Center, and Veterans Legal Institute, to support Defendant's position, and another one amici curiae brief filed on behalf of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 15 other media organizations, to support Plaintiffs' position. (See Dkt. Nos. 82, 105; see also Dkt. No. 41–1.)

Plaintiff Courthouse News Service, or "CNS," sued Defendant David Yamasaki in his official capacity as the Court Executive Officer/Clerk of the Orange County Superior Court, or "OCSC," for injunctive and declaratory relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. CNS contends that delays in public access to certain electronically filed civil complaints at OCSC violate its rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Last year, CNS moved for a preliminary injunction, which the Court denied. Now OCSC moves for summary judgment. Having considered the numerous filings and extensive oral arguments, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART OCSC's motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 75.)

1. BACKGROUND

This section provides context to the Court's analysis, where the Court will discuss relevant facts in more detail.

1.1 CNS Reporting and Publications

CNS is a news organization that specializes in civil litigation reports. CNS reporters write articles about legal news and create litigation reports. Some CNS original articles are freely available to the public on the organization's website, which also features a selection of non-legal news articles from the Associated Press. COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE , https://www.courthousenews.com/ (last visited May 7, 2018). On multiple occasions, other news organizations—including locally the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times—have credited CNS articles as their source.

CNS has over 2,000 subscribers nationwide. CNS subscribers include academic institutions, government agencies, and other media organizations, but overwhelmingly, they're law firms. CNS subscribers may receive "trackers," which provide updates about cases a subscriber is following, and "dingers," which alert subscribers about lawsuits filed against a specific party. CNS subscribers may also choose to receive monthly or daily publications, including one or several of CNS's 124 "New Litigation Reports." These reports supply daily updates about new civil litigation, excluding family law, filed in a specific geographical area. They include links to and original summaries of the complaints.

To provide this content, CNS employs reporters across the country. These reporters are assigned coverage of specific federal and state courthouses. One of their duties is to review new complaints and choose which ones to include in the daily New Litigation Reports.

Sixteen New Litigation Reports focus on California, covering new civil complaints in the federal district courts, and new unlimited civil complaints (sometimes just called "complaints" in this order) in the superior courts. Under California law, unlimited civil cases are those where the amount in controversy exceeds $25,000 or where the plaintiff requests certain types of injunctive relief. Complaints filed at OCSC are covered in CNS's Orange County Report, which is "emailed each weekday evening to about 275 subscribers." (See Dkt. No. 85 at 6; Dkt. No. 86 at ¶ 7.) But CNS reporters at OCSC cannot always access new complaints on the same day that those complaints are submitted to the court. So CNS sued OCSC.

1.2 OCSC Practices

OCSC is one of the busiest state trial courts in the country. In the 20142015 fiscal year, it opened nearly half a million new cases. Judicial Council of California, 2016 Court Statistics Report app. G, tbl.1. Besides numerous criminal cases, it handles all sorts of civil matters. Civil cases are handled at one of four OCSC divisions. Two of those divisions, the Central Justice Center (or "CJC") and the Civil Complex Center, process all filings in unlimited civil cases. Unlimited civil cases cover, among other things, requests for civil restraining orders, name change petitions, and complex civil cases. It's undisputed that on average, OCSC receives 14,098 new unlimited civil complaints a year. (Dkt. No. 84 at 2 ¶ 3.) Meanwhile, and as widely acknowledged in the press, OCSC has faced increasingly challenging budgetary restrictions. One source explains that while it's "no secret that California's clogged courts are seriously underfunded" in general, "as a ‘donor’ court under the current, convoluted funding method," OCSC isn't receiving its "fair share of statewide funding." See Josh Newman & Jennifer Muir Beuthin, Better Justice Through Local Funding Control , ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER (updated Feb. 9, 2018, 10:12 AM), https://www.ocregister.com/2018/02/08/better-justice-through-local-funding-control/[http://bit.ly/2oitH1B]. This has created problems unique to OCSC, which is for example "the only Superior Court in all of California to rely solely on part-time court reporters." Id. These problems then have a negative "domino effect." Id. And for the past several years, OCSC's "volume has increased even as its budgets have shrunk." Id. Funding issues obviously create challenges to OCSC in seeking justice.

Most new complaints are submitted to OCSC electronically. (See Ochoa Decl., Dkt. No. 75–2 at ¶ 14.) Indeed OCSC implemented mandatory electronic filing (or "e-filing") in 2013, subject to very few exceptions. One of those exceptions is for filings submitted by litigants representing themselves, said to be acting pro per (counsel use the expression "pro se ," which is less suitable for state court). Complaints may be submitted electronically 24 hours a day, even on weekends and court holidays. Manually filed complaints may be turned into the clerk's office between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on court business days.

When OCSC receives a new complaint, a Legal Processing Specialist (or "LPS") reviews and processes it before OCSC makes the complaint available to the public—if the complaint satisfies all the filing requirements and it's not protected by confidentiality or sealed. At the CJC, there are five LPSs whose assigned duty is to review and process new civil complaints. Review and processing at the Civil Complex Center is performed by one of the three LPSs who handle all new filings. LPSs perform administrative tasks, like checking for payment or assigning a case number associated with the complaint, and confidentiality and sealing review (referred to here as "privacy review" for short). For the privacy review, LPSs check the face of the complaint or petition, as well as the comment section that plaintiffs may fill out when submitting the document online. They look for words indicating that the plaintiff meant to ask for information to be kept private, and statutory references or claims that require confidential treatment by law. For example, under the Safe at Home program, confidential treatment is required for name change petitions submitted to avoid domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assault. Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1277(b)(2). OCSC has identified multiple instances where LPS review revealed requests for confidential treatment or sealing of complaints and petitions. (Ochoa Decl., Dkt. No. 75–2 at ¶¶ 21–22.)

It's this review and processing of new complaints that causes the delays at OCSC that CNS claims are unconstitutional.

1.3 Delays at Issue

The evidence and data submitted about delays in this case concern two periods: the last quarter of 2016 (October to December 2016), and the period from January 1, 2017 to October 18, 2017. The filings for this motion focus mainly on the 2017 period.

The statistics that CNS and OCSC have provided are for the most part...

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