Co-Head Of Virginia's FOIA Council Introduces Bill To Make State's Court System Even More Opaque
from the I'm-from-the-government-and-I'm-here-to-help...-the-government dept
As the result of a public records battle with a local newspaper over court records, two Virginia politicians have decided to address the issue with legislation. One hopes to further open court records to the public.
Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, filed House Bill 4, which would require the case management system maintained by the Office of the Executive Secretary to be open to the public. The bill was filed in November.
The other politician involved has, unsurprisingly, offered up a competing bill that would take public records laws in the opposite direction.
Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, has a different idea. He filed Senate Bill 727 this week, which would exempt all courts in Virginia from the Freedom of Information Act.
This would add to the large pile of exemptions the state government already benefits from. To the detriment of residents, state agencies and employees have nearly 175 FOIA exemptions available to them. The addition of court docket data would further separate the Virginian government from transparency and accountability.
There’s nothing surprising about a politician angling for more opacity. What is surprising is Sen. Stuart’s stance, which is diametrically opposed to his position.
Open-government advocates said they were stunned that Stuart would file such a bill without consulting the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council — of which he is vice chair.
“It appears that he’s suggesting that an entire branch of government — one of the three branches of government — be removed from the Freedom of Information Act,” said Betsy Edwards, executive director of the Virginia Press Association.
Of course, it could be very cynically argued that Stuart is doing exactly what the state wants, while holding an insider position on a council meant to provide some form of public advocacy for greater transparency. Stuart feels the court system should be able to craft its own exemptions and pick and choose what it wants to release to the unwashed voting bloc. This would just be more of the same from vice chair of the FOIA Advisory Council.
In 2016, he sponsored a bill that would have exempted disclosure of salaries of many state employees and forbid release of government employee databases with names of the employees if their salaries were also listed. A House subcommittee on FOIA killed it.
Stuart’s stated identity theft as the reason for exempting this information from public release — something that no one has ever alleged has occurred because of official releases of salary information. (Personally-identifiable information is redacted in Virigina’s release of salary data.) He also threw a little shade towards the First Amendment, claiming newspapers would be unhappy if the bill passed because they profit off the publication of public records.
Just to be very honest with everybody in here, the newspapers are not going to like it if you vote for this bill. I don’t want you to be disillusioned. It bothers me a little bit because what the newspapers do is they get this big database from the state and then they republish this online. And it helps them gain subscribers to their newspaper to search that information. And so, they are very unhappy with me and I suspect if you vote for this bill they will be very unhappy with you. And I want to be very honest about that. But I think we have an obligation to protect our state employees from suffering from identity theft.
Then again, Sen. Stuart isn’t so much the vice chair of the FOIA Advisory Council as he is an absentee landlord.
Although Stuart is the vice chairman, he rarely attends meetings. He missed nine of 10 meetings of the council in the past two years.
It appears Sen. Stuart likes the power that comes with political office, but none of the obligations to the public that come with it. Stuart blamed scheduling conflicts for being unable to attend meetings that occur roughly every sixty days. He’s adding zero value to the Council and spends more of his time in the legislature actively thwarting it. It may be tough to remove Stuart from office, but there’s certainly no reason the FOIA Advisory Council needs to continue posting his name to its masthead and inviting him to meetings he just not going to attend.