Virginia Lawmakers Vote Down Bill for Online Courts Database

Despite the vote on this bill, a separate bill that would make much of the same information part of a publicly searchable statewide database remains alive.

by Travis Fain, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) / January 24, 2017

(TNS) — RICHMOND — Legislation meant to open up court records that the Daily Press has tried to pry loose with a lawsuit went down at the Virginia legislature Monday.

A separate bill, which would make much of the same information part of a publicly searchable statewide database, remains alive. But legislators say there's little chance the state will cover a nearly $1.3 million price tag that the court system's Office of the Executive Secretary has said it would need to implement that bill.

Even as legislators acknowledged that they won't force change this year, they had strong words for the office Monday, questioning how much money the system has built up from fine collections and why technological improvements take so long.

"What exactly's being done with that money?" asked Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City. "I never see any progress. ... Every year it's the same story."

Kristi S. Wright, head of legislative and public relations for the state's judicial system, said she'd get Kilgore a report on system funding. She also said there are a number of behind-the-scenes projects, some required by state statute, that pull money and attention from more visible upgrades

Kilgore and Del. Greg Habeeb expressed frustrations that attorneys feel over the system's online court records. Most of the data that would make up a statewide database is publicly available online, but only through a time-consuming circuit-by-circuit, and district-by-district, look up.

"I've talked to a bunch of lawyers and a bunch of members of the General Assembly who think it's crazy how behind the times we are," said Habeeb, who chairs the Courts of Justice Civil Law Subcommittee that heard these issues Monday.

Del. Margaret Ransone's House Bill 1844, which would require the Executive Secretary to the Supreme Court to build a statewide lookup for criminal cases, passed the full Courts of Justice Committee last week. It's held up in Appropriations while legislators decide whether to fund the change, which OES said would require a major hardware upgrade and cost nearly $1.3 million.

Habeeb said he's spoken to Appropriations Chairman S. Chris Jones and has been "been given every indication" that won't happen this year. An attempt to reach Jones, R-Suffolk, Monday evening was not immediately successful.

Monday's discussion centered primarily on Del. Marcus Simon's House bill 1794, which is broader than Ransone's bill. It calls for a statewide searchable website for criminal and civil cases, not just criminal cases. It also would require OES to release the database behind that search system.

The estimated cost for Simon's bill is nearly $1.7 million.

"My guess is they thought that was a big enough number to kill your bill," Habeeb told Simon Monday.

This bulk data is what the Daily Press has been seeking for more than two years, first through Freedom of Information Act requests and now via a lawsuit due for a hearing before the Virginia Supreme Court after the current legislative session wraps.

Partial data compiled from the existing online lookups, which the Daily Press pulled with help from Code for Hampton Roads, pointed to racial disparities in the courts system.

In the end Monday, Habeeb, Kilgore and three other Republicans on the subcommittee voted against Simon's bill in a confusing turn of events that the Daily Press had to clarify after the meeting.

©2017 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC