Virginia Supreme Court to hear newspaper appeal of records ruling

By Frank Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch – 9/21/2016

The Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by The Daily Press to a Newport News Circuit Court decision denying the newspaper access to a statewide Circuit Court criminal case database.

The Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court said it is not empowered to release the database because it is not the custodian of the records; it says the local clerks are. The public can look up the information on the Virginia Supreme Court’s Online Case Information System on a case-by-case basis if you have a specific defendant’s name and the correct court.

Hoping to determine whether blacks and whites are treated differently in plea bargains and probation violations, The Daily Press argued that the office of the executive secretary is at least a joint custodian of the information because of how the database is developed and maintained.

The newspaper said that even though it is requesting the information in bulk, it is seeking only information that the clerks already release to the public.

“I’m very pleased. We feel very strongly about this case,” said Hunter W. Sims Jr., one of the lawyers representing the newspaper. Sims said Wednesday that all the briefs should be filed in the next few months and then a date set to argue it before the court.

The three-paragraph order granting the hearing, issued on Monday, concluded by noting that Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn and Senior Justice Elizabeth B. Lacy “took no part in the decision to grant the petition for appeal.”

Sims declined to comment. L. Steven Emmert, an appellate lawyer who practices before the court, said such a statement usually indicates a justice has effectively recused, or taken themselves out of, a case for a variety of possible reasons. None was specified in the order.

He said it means that the court is likely to use two senior justices when the case is argued next year, and Lacy will not be one of them.