A federal judge in Virginia awarded $2 million in attorney fees against court clerks in Prince William County and the City of Norfolk Wednesday over a First Amendment action filed by Courthouse News, a nationwide news service for lawyers.
A lawsuit was filed after reporters from the news service alleged that court clerks in Prince William and Norfolk had changed the way they processed new civil court filings, causing delays for reporters seeking access to public records. Prior to these changes, reporters were able to review most new civil complaints on the day they were filed.
U.S. Judge Henry Coke Morgan Jr. of the Eastern District of Virginia ruled in January for the plaintiff, saying the processing delays resulted in “stale news, like stale bread,” according to Courthouse News reporter Bill Girdner.
The defendants in the case, Prince William Clerk of Circuit Court Jacqueline Smith and Norfolk Clerk of the Circuit Court George Schaefer (D), fought the allegations. According to the verdict, Smith (D) denied there was any delay in retrieving public records and maintained that “her office is under no legal obligation to provide” same day access to civil court filings.
Further, Smith asserted that her office “could not provide same-day access to complaints without disrupting business operations.”
The court noted, however, that both the Prince William County Circuit Court and Norfolk Circuit Court had begun providing same-day access to court filings after the lawsuit was filed.
The judge ultimately ruled in favor of the plaintiff, Courthouse News, finding that there had undoubtedly been a delay in access to civil court filings. The court found that the “defendants’ actions resulted in constitutionally deficient access.”
“The public and press enjoy a qualified First Amendment right of access to newly-filed civil complaints unless particular filings are entitled to confidentiality by law,” Morgan wrote.
Although an injunction was denied in this case, the judge ordered the court clerks to continue to provide reasonable and timely access to civil complaints and told the parties they could return in six months to make sure the clerks were following his order.
Smith said in an email Friday that the case is “on appeal,” and that the plaintiffs had testified that the clerk’s office is doing a “near perfect” job currently.
Smith added that, “in the past, there had been issues,” regarding access to civil complaints and that was why the plaintiffs were afforded their attorney’s fees. Those fees, she said, will be paid by insurance.
Smith has served as Prince William’s clerk of circuit court since 2017 after being elected in special election following the death of former clerk Michele McQuigg. Smith said that she had made many changes since taking over from the previous clerk “including processing filings within one day and responding to public inquiries same-day, often within two hours.”
“I became clerk three years ago and it took almost two years to get our office on the right track,” Smith said.
Reach Daniel Berti at email@example.com