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Ninth Circuit: Abstention Inapplicable in First Amendment Cases

Ninth Circuit: Abstention Inapplicable in First Amendment Cases

by Mark Wilson

On April 7, 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a district court had improperly abstained from hearing a claim that a state court violated the First Amendment by denying prompt access to newly-filed complaints.

Courthouse News Service (CNS) is a national news wire service that reports on civil lawsuits in state and federal courts. It publishes sixteen reports on new litigation in California courts alone.

About 3,000 law firms, university and law school libraries, individuals and major media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe, subscribe to CNS’ news service. CNS sends email alerts to subscribers concerning new court filings; it also maintains a website with news stories and commentary freely available to the general public.

More than one hundred CNS reporters visit courthouses around the country each day to review recently-filed civil complaints, and are generally able to access the complaints on the same day they are filed.

For many years, California’s Ventura County Superior Court granted CNS reporters same-day access to newly-filed complaints. However, court staff began withholding complaints until after they had been fully processed, which delayed CNS’ access to those filings for up to 34 calendar days.

CNS filed suit in federal court alleging that the Ventura County Superior Court had violated its First Amendment rights by withholding the newly-filed civil complaints. It sought an injunction requiring timely access to those filings.

The district court granted the defendant’s motion to abstain and dismiss under the Pullman abstention doctrine set forth in Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941) and the equitable abstention doctrine in O’Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488 (1974).

The Ninth Circuit reversed, first concluding “that the district court erred by dismissing this case under the Pullman doctrine,” because “Pullman abstention is rarely appropriately invoked in cases implicating the First Amendment.”

The Court of Appeals also concluded that “the district court erred in abstaining under O’Shea,” as “the requirements of the O’Shea doctrine are not satisfied.” The case was remanded for further proceedings. See: Courthouse News Service v. Planet, 750 F.3d 776 (9th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal cases

Courthouse News Service v. Planet

O’Shea v. Littleton

Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co.