Judge rules Virginia’s judiciary not subject to FOIA

A retired circuit court judge has ruled the Virginia Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the state’s judiciary, a ruling that could potentially hinder access to records of the judicial branch of government, like expense reports or phone bills.

The Oct. 15 ruling by retired Judge William Alexander II came in a dispute between William Turner, who lives on the Eastern Shore, and state officials. Turner had filed a lawsuit requesting records of long-distance phone calls from the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Office of the Executive Secretary.

The judge ruled that enforcement of FOIA did not apply to the Office of Executive Secretary and that the doctrine of sovereign immunity and separation of powers barred enforcement of FOIA against the office.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and one of the state’s foremost experts on access to public records and meetings, said in an email that her group “remains quite concerned about the potential reach of this court ruling.”

“Last week the courts issued a proposal to govern access to court records that would presumably stand in place of access under FOIA, but at this stage we are still looking into the impact of both the ruling and the proposal on real-world questions about the public’s ability to monitor the performance of the judicial system, from expenditures and caseloads to employment policies and other basic government operations that can be scrutinized at the legislative and executive branches of state and local government.” (Read more…)