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State urges federal judge to dismiss lawsuit to broaden access to court records

A large building with a glass front near a wide street.
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Richmond's federal courthouse for the Eastern District of Virginia.

On Monday, officials with the Virginia state court system asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit to force courts to make public court records available online. 

Judge Henry Hudson hasn’t announced yet whether he’ll toss the case, but urged all parties involved to ask the General Assembly to deal with the issue through legislation.

The national legal publication Courthouse News Service sued the executive secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia and the clerk of the Circuit Court for Prince William County in September for denying the service and the general public remote access to civil filings.

Virginia law grants remote access to attorneys and their staff through Virginia’s online database, ‘Virginia  Officer  of  the  Court  Remote  Access’ (OCRA). But the public, including the media, must travel in person to the courthouse where the relevant lawsuit was filed to access civil, non confidential, public court filings. 

State law provides that court clerks cannot post on the Internet any documents containing private information, including actual signatures, social security numbers, or financial account numbers.

“There’s an easy legislative remedy here,” Hudson said during Monday’s hearing.

 The complaint alleges the law discriminates against the press and violates free speech under the First and 14th Amendments. 

Virginia is an anomaly when it comes to putting court records online; 37 states currently provide remote access to civil filings. The federal court system also posts court records online.

Attorneys for the state argued remote access would encourage data mining.

Hudson noted that any person can already get the same information by going in person to the clerk's office.

“The cat is already out of the bag,” said CNS attorney Jonathan Ginsberg. 

Of Virginia’s 120 circuit courts, CNS says it is able to cover only 18 on a semiregular basis. The remaining circuit courts, it says, are too remote to justify sending reporters every day.

Lawyers for Karl Hade, executive secretary of the Supreme Court, say the executive secretary doesn’t have the authority to grant or deny access to any circuit court’s records; they argue that authority lies with the circuit clerks.

Prince William County Circuit Court Clerk Jaqueline Smith’s attorneys say the documents aren’t being restricted so much as the method of access.

If Judge Hudson allows the case to move forward, it would go to trial in July. 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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