Iowa agrees to speed up access to civil court cases as part of lawsuit settlement

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The state of Iowa will provide “contemporaneous” access to newly filed civil court cases to settle a lawsuit that accused the state of violating the First Amendment by delaying access to those filings, the Des Moines Register reported Monday.

The newspaper publishing company Lee Enterprises, based in Davenport, Iowa, and Courthouse News sued the state's court administrator in May, seeking quicker access to newly filed lawsuits. On Wednesday, parties in the lawsuit notified the court of a settlement.

In the era of paper court records, newly filed petitions were available for public review at a county court clerk’s office. As electronic court filings became the norm, new petitions in Iowa have first gone to a nonpublic database to await processing by court staff. Those administrative steps can take several days, delaying public access through the website Iowa Courts Online.

The settlement calls Iowa's judicial branch to create a new access option to see civil petitions even before official processing is complete. The state also will pay $80,000 to cover plaintiffs' attorney fees, but admitted no wrongdoing.

The lawsuit had argued that there was no reason for the delay, noting that even federal courts make new filings automatically available online before official processing is complete. It also cited a “qualified” First Amendment right for the media to view and report on the documents.

The new link to pre-processing filings will be available to those who complete user agreements on Iowa Courts Online. The parties told the judge it could take about a month to set up the new system.

Courthouse News Editor Bill Girdner said in a statement that Iowa's "willingness to wrestle with and rectify the harm posed by the delays in public access experienced under the previous system is laudable. Iowa’s system will now be a model of openness and public access for other states in the region and across the country.”

A message was left Monday with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which represented the defendants.

Courthouse News settled a similar lawsuit with Missouri in February and has cases pending in other states, the Register reported.