The Supreme Court of Virginia has done the commonwealth’s citizens a favor. Recently, two court rulings made public access to court hearings and government employee information easier to obtain.
One decision barred the state from closing documents to the press and the public concerning an incident in Newport News when a former city police officer shot and killed a man. The court, in reversing a circuit court ruling, stated that, “In the context of criminal proceedings, the doctrine imposes a presumption of transparency on one of the most basic functions of government.”
The decision to unseal the documents was sent back to circuit court for arguments.
In the other case, the court ruled that the town of South Hill was wrong to withhold personnel information from the public that had been requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The case involved employment disputes among the town’s staff.
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There is a FOIA exemption in Virginia and four other states for “personal information,” and that phrase has been well-used and perhaps abused by some government officials. Anything that an employee does can be defined as “personal information,” but the Supreme Court has ruled that there are limits. The court stated that “data, facts and statements are private if their disclosure would constitute an ‘unwarranted invitation of personal privacy’ to a reasonable person under the circumstances.”
Government, on any level, should not be doing its business in the dark. That was the whole point of FOIA to begin with. It’s our business that’s being done, and we applaud the Supreme Court for making that more clear.
The state court has distinguished itself on at least one more occasion in the recent past.
In 2021, it showed itself to be refreshingly impartial when it appointed two Special Masters to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts after the legislature and a committee of politicians and other citizens were unable to do so. The Special Masters the court appointed did as fair a job as could have been done in weaning us off gerrymandering. Fears that the court would stack the deck by letting political bias ruin this once-in-a-decade chance to make the election process more fair proved baseless.
In an era when courts, including the highest one in the land, are suspected by some of having a political bias, the Supreme Court of Virginia sets a good example for solons everywhere.