Voters should oust anyone who opposes Virginians access to public information

Published 10:11 am Friday, August 14, 2015

This article first appeared in The Daily Press, which is based in Newport News, and is reprinted with permission.

The Daily Press’ lawsuit against an office of the state Supreme Court has stirred a surprising hornet’s nest of opposition from an unlikely group: the court clerks themselves.

Surprising, because court records are required by law to be public, and these men and women are placing themselves squarely athwart your right to see how your government operates.

Unlikely, because every last one of them is an elected official.

Which means you, dear reader, have the right — one might say an obligation — to vote out these misguided ladies and gentlemen who think our court system is their private sinecure, rather than a transparent temple to the rule of law.

As readers know, the Daily Press filed suit against the Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary last week to obtain a database of basic court case information that it maintains.

This record is compiled from case information put into the OES’s computers by almost every clerk of court throughout Virginia. The case information from each court system added to the case information from other court systems creates a new public record, one that helps illuminate statewide patterns in our justice system.

Our reasoning for filing this lawsuit is straightforward: There’s insufficient information about how well the courts do their job, and no way of determining if citizens enjoy equal protection under the law. This record will help us and any other Virginian concerned about justice get a clear and thorough view of how the state judiciary performs.

Citizens can go to their local courthouse and get those records on a case-by-case basis. The OES lets anyone with access to the Internet see those case-by-case records by tapping into its database, so we’re unclear about why it thinks this information isn’t public when the office itself is clearly making it public.

Our legal action followed after months of requests for a copy of that full database — which the OES used to release until last year — was met with repeated denials. It now appears the arrogance in the administration of our courts is more pervasive than we thought.

The Daily Press learned on Wednesday that Cathy C. Hogan, clerk of the Bedford County court and president of the Virginia Circuit Court Clerks Association, is polling clerks to ask if they support or oppose release of the records.

So far, more than 50 have said they oppose. Only four say they are taking up the OES’s invitation to send the paper the records we requested. Two others asked the OES to release the records for them.

Reporter Dave Ress sent an email to 118 clerks of courts to ask them about their stance, the reasons why and whether they made any money selling those records to for-profit commercial firms.

As you might expect, the clerks were reluctant to explain why they advocate keeping public records away from citizens.

One official — Randy Carter in Suffolk — sent an email urging his colleagues to not answer the Daily Press’ questions. He used the “reply all” function, which had the effect of sending that email to this newspaper.

Mr. Carter had previously complained to us that to provide the records was burdensome. He said he’d have to review the records, either charging us more than $50 an hour for his time or absorbing the cost himself, to make sure they didn’t include any confidential information. The OES database apparently includes information about cases that were supposed to be expunged but that are currently available to anybody who can access the Web.

Sharon N. Jones, clerk of court in Isle of Wight County, also sent a “reply all” email to her fellow clerks and this newspaper, asking, “Isn’t there a concern as to what they do with the data once it’s in their hands…….to be manipulated anyway they see fit?….and then sell to other newppapers?….I think there’s a code section about that!”

Can you imagine? We are left to wonder if Ms. Jones thinks all public records requests are thinly veiled attempts to conceal so sinister an intent. She appears to believe that she is protecting the public by denying us access to this database.

We do not wish to paint with too broad a brush. Our previous efforts to obtain these court records gained the willing assistance of Newport News Circuit Court Clerk Rex Davis and his successor Gary Anderson, who urged the Supreme Court to release data from their district.

The Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court did the same, as did the Norfolk Circuit Court and the circuit court serving Wise County and the city of Norton.

But some of these court officials no longer believe themselves beholden to the public they were elected to serve.

So we put it you, the citizens and voters of Virginia: Do court records belong to you or to the clerks whom you elect? If commercial firms can get them, and use them with no oversight, is it right to deny access to Virginians who are entitled to have them?

These are important questions to ask the men and women seeking your vote for a job that in our area pays anywhere from $93,000 to $143,000 a year.

And if you don’t like the answers — if this isn’t the way you want business conducted in your city or county and state — here is your remedy:

You must call your local clerk, voice your opinion and say that you vote. Then call your local legislators and tell them the same.

Then you must follow through on Election Day because you, as a voter, are the ultimate boss. Many of these men and women will be on the ballot this fall, and voters should oust anyone who believes that the right to access public information should stop at the courthouse door.