Courts & Corrections

Vermont ends delay on public release of lawsuit documents

Paul Reiber
Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger
The state of Vermont issued an emergency order that took effect Monday allowing quicker public access to newly filed civil lawsuits.

The order requires the release of civil suits upon their filing. Previously, the state’s judiciary would not release civil suits until at least one defendant was served or notified of the suit.

The reversal comes after Courthouse News Service, a national trade publication for attorneys, sued the state in federal court arguing that the notification policy was unconstitutional because delays in access to public documents amount to a denial of access.

In its suit, Courthouse News Service, which was represented by Bob Hemley of the Burlington firm Gravel and Shea PC, wrote that Vermont’s state courts were the only courts in the United States that prohibited release of documents in a civil suit until notice is served.

The suit stated that as a result of the practice “most new Vermont civil suits — including complaints and case-initiating documents as well as docket and other case records — are withheld from public view for weeks or months after they are filed.”

Deputy Attorney General Joshua Diamond said his office worked with the court administrator, who was named in the suit, and the Vermont Supreme Court to craft the emergency order. It was signed by Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber and Associate Justices Marilyn Skoglund, Beth Robinson and Harold Eaton.

“After considering all the legal issues we felt this rule was no longer needed, especially since the underlying statute requiring the rule had been repealed in 2013,” Diamond said.

Hemley and Adam Angione, special projects editor for Courthouse News Service, could not be reached for comment Tuesday as to whether the judicial order is enough to resolve their lawsuit.

“From our perspective it makes the underlying suit from Courthouse News Service moot and should resolve the case,” Diamond said.

The New England First Amendment Coalition celebrated the state’s order in a news release Tuesday.

“This is a win for open government. Vermonters have a right to know about lawsuits filed in their courts and to have timely access to those documents,” said the group’s executive director, Justin Silver, in a statement.

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