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FOIA Lawsuit Against Virginia's Supreme Court's Executive Secretary
Posted on Monday, August 10 @ 08:38:26 MST by editor

FOIA

Following the Unalienable Rights Foundation's presentation [in response to Frosty Landon’s (of the Virginia Council of Open Government) and Dave Ress (of the Daily Press’) comments to the Virginia Freedom of Information Council on July 22, 2015 at the Council’s meeting in Richmond, Virginia’s Daily Press (a Tribune Paper in Newport News, VA)] filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Supreme Court's Office of the Executive Secretary on Friday, seeking the release of a comprehensive database of thousands of court records dating back more than a decade.

What the Daily Press had to say about its lawsuit:

At the heart of the lawsuit is whether the statewide database of criminal court records is covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

The Daily Press filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Supreme Court's Office of the Executive Secretary on Friday, seeking the release of a comprehensive database of thousands of court records dating back more than a decade.At the heart of the lawsuit is whether the statewide database of criminal court records is covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

The lawsuit, filed in Newport News Circuit Court by the Daily Press and reporter Dave Ress, asks the court to order the Office of the Executive Secretary to release the database.

The Daily Press lawsuit points out that the Office of the Executive Secretary is a public agency created by the General Assembly and funded with public money, and argues that the compilation of court records is a public document that should be released.

The Office of the Executive Secretary has so far refused.

"Taxpayers have a right to hold all the institutions they fund accountable for their performance," Daily Press Publisher and Chief Executive Officer Digby A. Solomon said in an emailed statement. "The judiciary should not be exempt from this scrutiny."

Solomon said the Daily Press finds it "disturbing" that the Office of the Executive Secretary is "throwing up roadblocks after an initial Daily Press investigation seemed to show our courts may be treating African-Americans differently from white Virginians."

Solomon was referring to two stories the Daily Press has published that were based on partial access to the records. One found that black defendants were less likely than white defendants to be able to negotiate a reduced charge in plea bargains. The other found that black defendants were likely to receive harsher sentences than white defendants for probation or parole violations.

Requests for comment left Friday afternoon with Executive Secretary Karl Hade, Assistant Executive Secretary and Counsel Edward Macon and Office of the Executive Secretary Director of Legislative and Public Relations Kristi Wright were not returned.

Based on the existing law, the public can inspect all criminal and civil case information, as long as they visit the courthouses where those documents were filed.

The data base the Office of the Executive Secretary maintains is part of the case management system the office runs for the judicial system. And while state law says court clerks have to maintain records of court cases, it does not say they have to use the Office of Executive Secretary's system.

Along with basic case information such as the names of the parties involved and the case dispositions, the database includes personal information, such as the defendant’s sex and race. It does not include Social Security numbers or dates of birth.

If collected in whole, such information can provide insight into how the state’s legal system treats the criminally accused.

Megan Rhyne, head of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the public ultimately suffers when this type of information remains private.

"This type of information provides an important check on the judicial branch," she said. "The public's right is being sacrificed because of these hyper-legal arguments taking place."

The state’s Freedom of Information Advisory Council — which is the only recourse for FOIA disputes other than filing a lawsuit — has already sided with the Daily Press concerning the issue, saying the database is a public record that should be released.

"There are all these reasons people are saying why they can’t (release the information), but no one is saying, ‘Why not?’" Rhyne said. "The arguments really seem to ring poorly on the public’s ears."


 
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