Virginia Legislature Moves to Expand Access to Court Records

(CN) – The Virginia General Assembly Wednesday advanced legislation to expand public access court records with bipartisan support after a local paper lost a lawsuit seeking information on sentencing disparities across the Commonwealth.

In 2016, the Newport News-based Daily Press attempted to collect routine criminal data from the 118 court districts across the Commonwealth.

Hoping to find disparities in sentencing in minority communities, the paper worked with the State Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary to compile the data, but after only 50 court districts responded to its request for information, the newspaper sued.

The case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court,  but in the end, the newspaper’s quest for cooperation was shot down last summer.

“It’s a matter of [making sure] judges and juries are being fair,” said Delegate Mike Mullin, a lawyer and representative of the district where the Daily Press is located. “The best way to do that is to evaluate the outcomes of trials.”

Mullin, a Democrat, crafted a bill to address they Daily Press situation during the legislature’s 2017 session, only to have it tabled by for the year. But after the newspaper’s lawsuit ended, legislators from both sides of the aisle, worked with members of the press and court clerks to craft a new version of the bill which has since been embraced by both the state Senate and the House of Delegates.

“We have bicameral, bipartisan, multiregional support, said Greg Habeeb, a Republican who represents Virginia’s 8th District.

A longtime advocate for government transparency, Habeeb said working directly with court clerks and other interested parties was the best way to achieve the desired goal.

“You couldn’t get more inclusive of Virginia than this. And that’s the way it’s supposed to be with a systems bill like this,” Habeeb said.

The solution includes creating a searchable online database of available, non confidential criminal case information accessible to anyone. Clerks must respond to requests within 30 days and may charge a fee to compile more complex reports of data, but that fee cannot “not exceed the actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, reviewing, supplying, or searching for the requested records.”

Currently the information was available but required searching each individual court.

Betsy Edwards, Executive Director of Virginia Press Association, said this delegation of authority gave power and responsibilities to clerks of the court, but limited the public’s timely access to information.

“You had to go to each court to get it before, which was very labor intensive,” said Edwards, whose organization was involved in crafting the new legislation. “[This bill] solves an issue that everyone thought was there.”

The new system merges data in a system maintained by the State Supreme Court. This state-run alternative aims to be more accurate and accessible than a private system, advocates said.

“Watchdog groups, researchers and newspapers can look at the criminal justice system and see if there are dramatic disparities if you get charged with a DUI in different parts of the state, or if there’s a disparity in sentencing in communities of color versus communities of privilege,” Mullin said.

The sponsors and supporters of the bill also worked to ensure that sensitive information in court documents remains anonymous, with entries like social security numbers and other personal identifiers being subject to redaction.

Habeeb and Mullin said they are proud of the work they’ve done to expand court access during this session, but they hope to do more during the 2019 session. They both said they intend to introduce legislation to expand public access to juvenile and domestic as well as civil courts.

“It’s an important resource that will help us track issues going forward as we develop policy,” Habeeb said.

Virginia Governor  Ralph Northam, a Democrat, doesn’t comment on pending legislation. However, both Habeeb and Mullin said the governor’s office was involved in crafting the legislation, and they’re optimistic that the bill will be signed once it reaches his desk.

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