Greater access needed

Published 12:42 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2017

There’s no doubt in our minds that the criminal and civil records, along with the court orders, wills, deeds and other documents housed in Virginia’s circuit court clerk’s offices are public records.

Circuit court clerks are elected officials who work at the will of the people in their respective counties or cities. They’re the custodians of some of the most important documents to a jurisdiction, whether it be land records or judges’ orders regarding criminal matters.

As reported Friday, the Daily Press, a daily newspaper based in Newport News, filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary seeking access to a statewide database of all criminal and civil cases across Virginia.

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The case went to the Virginia Supreme Court in April, resulting in a June ruling that circuit court clerks were the custodians of public records in the state’s court system, which, in other words, meant the Daily Press couldn’t access the database.

The newspaper wasn’t asking for special privileges in its request. It simply sought to make records, which are supposed to be public, open to the public in a more accessible way.

The ruling and stubbornness of many clerks of court across Virginia, along with the ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court, not only did a disservice to the Daily Press, but to the people of the Heart of Virginia.

These clerks — elected by the voters in their respective jurisdictions — have a duty to the public, no matter what city or county they’re from across the commonwealth, to make public records public and accessible.

“Having the database means it is possible to ask such things as: How many murder cases were there over a period of time and what was the result?” said Daily Press reporter Dave Ress. “It allows you to ask if men and women or blacks and whites facing similar charges end up, on average, with similar results, or if some cities or counties are tougher on particular crimes than others.”

We call on clerks of court in Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward counties to call for the database to be made public, allowing the people — no matter what part of Virginia they live in — to access the counties’ civil and criminal cases within the database.

Easier access to public documents will always strengthen democracy.