The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit over access to court documents in Maine’s new electronic case filing system.

A three-judge panel in Boston ruled Monday that U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen must consider whether delays in public access to civil cases filed in Penobscot County violate the U.S. and Maine constitutions.

Torresen dismissed the lawsuit last summer saying that the complaint from the plaintiffs in the suit — a collection of news outlets, including the Bangor Daily News — “concerns the timing, not the denial, of public access. This distinction makes a difference.”

The appellate court disagreed. It directed Torresen to consider the merits of the case, which she has not yet done. The judges also said that she must decide if the delay violates the First Amendment.

“If any timelines for providing complaints established under state law are constitutionally sufficient, then state officials’ failure to adhere to them is a matter for the state courts,” the ruling said.

The complaint, filed in February 2021, claimed that the rules outlining when civil complaints are made public violated the public’s First Amendment right to access judicial records. The complaint also sought a preliminary injunction that would force Maine’s court system to change its rules.

Since then, access to documents has improved and the cost for obtaining copies at the Penobscot Judicial Center has been waived, but access to documents is not as immediate as it is in the federal court’s electronic case filing system.

The BDN is a plaintiff in the lawsuit alongside Courthouse News Service — a national publication based in California focused on legal news —  and the company that owns the Portland Press Herald, Lewiston Sun Journal and other Maine newspapers.

Under the rules for the state court system’s electronic case filing system — which began implementation in 2020 with a pilot project in Penobscot County and the state’s Business and Consumer Court — newly filed complaints were not made public until three business days after the clerk’s office was notified that the defendants in the case had received the complaint.

However, under the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff had 90 days from filing to serve the complaint on defendants. That meant it could take more than three months for civil complaints to be made public after they were filed.

Three weeks after the complaint was filed, the Maine Judicial Branch announced that new civil cases could be digitally accessed after the clerks had processed them — saying it should take no more than four business hours — and the state then filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which Torresen granted.

The case will be returned to federal court in Portland where motions for summary judgment will be filed as the next step in the litigation.