An Annoyance: How Meaningless Court Filings Become News Stories

Paper pile - April 2011

One of my big pet peeves is when journalists camp out on court dockets to and force a story out of the non-stop minutia that makes up a typical case.

You may have a sense that court cases take a long time and involve a lot of paper, but few non-lawyers understand the sheer scale.  Even if you were a party in a court case, there were dozens and dozens of filings and appearances that you weren't privy to simply because they were too insignificant to warrant your attention.

As an example, one of the cases I've been working on, a contract/defamation claim in California Superior Court, ended with settlement this past February.  The complaint was originally filed in February 2014.  Over the course of these two years, the court entered nearly 600 entries on the case docket, each representing a filed document or court order/notice.  A lot of this stuff is fairly insignificant.  

With a high-profile case, though, you'll often have media folks with alerts on the dockets, looking for anything they can turn into a story.  After all, we're beyond even the 24-hour news cycle, and content producers have to keep creating stories throughout the day.  So it went last week, with Bernie Sanders and the DNC.  

You may recall that back in late 2015, there was a dust-up regarding a Sanders staffer who allegedly improperly accessed Clinton voter data, with the DNC locking out the Sanders campaign from the critical data for around a day or so.  The Sanders campaign flipped out and filed a lawsuit.  The parties basically reached agreement that Sanders would be satisfied with an audit into the decision to lock out his campaign.

When you file a complaint, the court issues a summons, which is basically the document that needs to be served on the defendant to bring them within the jurisdiction of the court.  (The summons is also called "process," which is what is referred to in the phrases "service of process" and "process server.")  If you don't serve process in a set time -- 90 days in federal court -- the case will be dismissed for lack of prosecution (so the court doesn't have stale cases sitting on its calendar).

So, a few days ago, the deadline for Sanders to serve process came up.  A ticker alert would have popped up on the desktop of a clerk in the assigned judge's chambers, prompting the court to issue an order to show cause why the case should not be dismissed for lack of prosecution (a fancy way of saying, "Please submit proof of service").  Sanders' people would have then have filed the proof of service they got from the process server, a task that would have taken maybe an hour or so to whip up the papers.  This is all procedural, and of no significance.

Yet there were dozens of articles about the filing.  "A source close to the Sanders campaign framed the latest development as a way to keep the door open for a lawsuit as the two parties wait for the results of an independent audit," said The Hill, for some reason quoting an anonymous source on a point that literally any lawyer could have told them.  It was probably the same "source close to the Sanders campaign" that told New York Magazine that "the active lawsuit . . . will keep the campaign’s options open as it parleys with the DNC 'to make sure Sen. Sanders is treated fairly in this process.'"  Crackerjack reporting here -- not letting the suit be dismissed continues the existence of the suit.  Gawker declared that this utterly meaningless filing was "as sure a sign as any that settlement talks aren’t going so well," which was just idiotic -- I've seen months pass between the actual agreement to settle and dismissal of the case plenty of times.  The fact that a party didn't let the case be dismissed means nothing; even if the party intended to drop the suit because a settlement was reached, they still would have filed the notice of service and then later filed a notice of settlement. 

I know this will never end -- especially in the modern media environment, where even the 24-hour news cycle is an eternity and journalists are under constant pressure to create content.  Still, it annoys the hell out of me when folks transform procedural nothing into news stories, especially because the readers often don't know the difference.