Two years ago, reporters for the Daily Press, the newspaper for Newport News and the Hampton Roads region, embarked on a massive data dive to examine statewide patterns of justice in Virginia.
An online database of circuit court cases is maintained by the Supreme Court of Virginia. It’s a veritable treasure trove of information with information on millions of cases, but it’s hardly user-friendly. Daily Press reporters found it could only be searched on a case-by-case basis — it’s impossible to pull up, say, all the cases for a specific judicial circuit, municipality, crime or any other criteria.
The newspaper worked with computer engineers who created a program to scan the database and present the results in ways useful to reporters and the public at large. Among the discoveries reporters uncovered in the data was an indication of a statewide trend that African-Americans are less likely to negotiate plea deals to reduced charges for lower penalties for several types of crimes and that they were punished more severely than whites for probation violations. Specific to the Hampton Roads region, the paper discovered that many gun crimes were rarely, if ever, punished.
The Daily Press had to turn to private computer engineers to analyze the database because the Office of the Executive Secretary in the state Supreme Court offices refused to release the database itself. In 2017, the Supreme Court refused to order the office to comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the release of the database.
The dispute over the court database is the subject of several bills now making their way through the 2018 session of the General Assembly. The ultimate goal of several pieces of legislation is to specifically make the database subject to FOIA. Another, introduced by Montross Republican state Sen. Richard Stuart, takes the opposite approach — exempting all records of the court system from FOIA while calling on the Supreme Court to devise rules governing some degree of public access by Dec. 1.
Legislators on both sides of the debate were under the impression the high court had no position on the issue. They were understandably surprised Tuesday when the court issued a news release declaring its intention to write rules — modeled on what other states do and consistent with the federal Freedom of Information Act — governing public access to the database by Dec. 1. The justices, in the release, say they’re committed to “reasonable and responsible transparency in accessing judicial records.”
So much for the high court’s neutrality on a matter of public policy pending in the legislature.
The judicial database, and the information it contains, is of vital interest to the public and the news media. In the past, we have agreed with the argument our colleagues at the Daily Press have made for the records to be subject to FOIA. But the court’s 2017 ruling against forcing release of the data threw the ball into the legislature’s court. That venue, we believe, is where the matter should be hashed out.
This is public information that should be readily and easily available to the public. Amending FOIA to reflect this fact is the job of the state’s elected leaders, not judges who seemingly want to restrict access. It is time for the Supreme Court to cease its efforts to keep Virginians in the dark about their courts.