Supreme Court court-records task force is limited in scope
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia is the most recent to weigh in on finding a balance between access to court records online and keeping some information confidential.
As part of the Commission on Courts in the 21st Century launched by Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr. Oct. 6, a group made up primarily of court clerks will tackle the issue that has so far largely eluded resolution by other court-based and legislative study commissions.
The committee first met on Nov. 17, during which Hassell appointed a subcommittee chaired by Fairfax Circuit Judge Leslie M. Alden. Other committee members include Virginia Court of Appeals Judges Robert J. Humphreys and D. Arthur Kelsey, University of Richmond law professor Kent Sinclair, Supreme Court Clerk Patricia L. Harrington, Arlington Court Clerk of Court David Bell, legal aid lawyer Henry W. McLaughlin III, Senior Assistant Richmond City Attorney Beverly Burton, Richmond criminal defense attorney Vaughan Jones and Sandy Jack, attorney executive assistant to Hassell.
Notably absent from the committee is any representation from open-government or press advocates.
The subcommittee has three months to come up with a proposal to present to the full committee on Feb. 16. A subcommittee to discuss the proposal before submission is slated for Feb. 6, and the full committee will meet only one other time after that, on May 25.
Though Hassell told the committee that access to court records is a "great guarantee against governmental tyranny and abuse," he and others at the committee ticked off a laundry list of problems resulting from online access to court records.
Misuse of information gleaned from public records is neither new nor unique to online records, but the easy availability of the information has many concerned that occasions for misuse will increase and the damage will be greater.
A legislative committee studied the issue from 2002 to 2004 and came up with only narrow, limited proposals. Online access to many records filed with court clerks (such as land records) must be through subscription service only by July 1, 2006.
Also, when records related to a divorce case are filed, an addendum with all the sensitive, personal information must be filed separately, and that addendum will not be available to the public.
As a candidate for the attorney general’s office, Bob McDonnell announced a plan to combat identity theft. As reported in the Times-Dispatch on Oct. 21, the plan would place greater restrictions on access to court records containing personal, private information. His proposal would require Social Security numbers, signatures and birth dates to be kept confidential.
State court systems around the country, and the federal courts, have been wrestling with online access to court records for years. The states that have come up with comprehensive proposals have usually done so only after an extensive meeting schedule and input from public-access advocates.
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