Virginia judges exempt themselves from state public records law

Virginia judges exempt themselves from state public records law

New rules issued by the state Supreme Court will now block access to judicial records, among others

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

The Virginia Supreme Court has issued eight new rules bringing new exemptions to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that broadly block access to judicial records.

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Virginia judges have been considering their new legislation since last year and call their move an act to “protect the administration of justice, the deliberative process, and the privacy of its judicial officers.” They’ve also asked the public to submit their comments on the then, proposed rules.

While most court cases remain open in the state, the new rules block access to administrative records of judges, magistrates, commissioners in chancery, and commissioners of accounts. In addition, records involving the operation of the judiciary created by the Office of the Executive Secretary, which brings administrative support to the state’s Supreme court, remain locked.

Similarly, written communications among court personnel, including those of the Office of the Executive Secretary and records entered into electronic systems used to create and issue court orders will also be withheld.

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Director of Legislative and Public Relations for the Office of the Executive Secretary, Supreme Court of Virginia Kristi. Wright, was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government was among the groups who submitted their concerns with the rules, calling them overly broad.

“We think the rules are an overreach in that they make whole categories of records - without regard to content - out of reach, and they remove the Office of Executive Secretary (the legislatively created agency that administers the court system) from FOIA without any real policy justification or analysis under case law or the Virginia constitution,” wrote Megan Rhyne, Executive Director for the VCOG.

State Legislators have been ruling over transparency issues since 2018. According to the VCOG, during the 2018 General Assembly, session members of the Office of Executive Secretary met with the group to discuss concerns with the proposed rules to remove the judiciary from Virginia FOIA. That same year, Legislators unanimously passed a bill to create a database of court case information available to the public.

“Even if we were to accept that FOIA did not apply to any records that the judiciary holds, it is hard to understand why the rules would not largely mirror FOIA. Instead, the rules make many records in their possession that would be routinely available at the legislative, executive and local level confidential.” added Rhyne.

The new rules are set to take effect June 17, 2019. You can take a look at them in the Virginia Supreme Court press release embedded below.

Image by Morgan Riley via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY 3.0