Local clerks withhold data from newspaper

Published 7:45 pm Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A majority of Circuit Court Clerks in the Heart of Virginia aren’t complying or responding to a records request from the Office of the Executive Secretary (OES) of the Virginia Supreme Court.

The request stems as a response to a civil suit filed in Newport News Circuit Court by The Daily Press against the OES seeking a comprehensive database of thousands of criminal court records dating back more than a decade. The OES has asked all clerks in the state to forward their case records to the Daily Press.

According to Daily Press reporter Dave Ress, a plaintiff in the suit who’s been requesting the records for over a year now, clerks in Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland and Prince Edward have either not responded to the request or have said they won’t send the files to the newspaper.

Buckingham Clerk Malcolm Booker Jr., along with Cumberland Clerk Sarah Spry, Prince Edward Clerk Machelle Epps and Charlotte Clerk Stuart Fallen, have been named as respondents in the suit, according the Newport News Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.

“The records belong to the elected clerks of Virginia’s circuit courts,” cited a Daily Press article. “Seventy … have declined a request by the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court that they release the records to the Daily Press, the office said in a court filing yesterday, objecting to the newspaper’s request for a court order to release the records,” cited the Daily Press.

While Epps, Spry and Fallen are not commenting on the requests, both Booker and Lunenburg Circuit Court Clerk Gordon Erby are making their positions known.

Booker said he’s not sending the files to the newspaper, while Erby said he will comply.

“I’m not because they think they can just walk in and take our records without paying for them like everybody else, the public or like you,” Booker said. “They think they should have total access to it and we should do all these special things for them which I’m not going to do. I’m not doing it.”

Booker said if they met his criteria he’d let them have the records. “They’re just not going to waltz in and waltz out and just demand everything without any charge or anything. I’m just not doing it.”

“They just want to have a free ride, basically … They should go through the same steps as everybody else,” he said.

The Daily Press has been seeking the collection of case records — which the OES used to release — for more than a year.

Erby said his office will comply, and Ress confirmed that he has received a response from Lunenburg.

“Everything in this office … belongs to the people,” Erby said. “And I’m going to release everything that the people want that I can without putting myself in jail.”

“I’ve been interested in, as a lot of journalists are, in how courts do their job for a long time,” Ress said.

“The OES has, just last week, asked the court to add 70 clerks as parties to the lawsuit,” Ress said of the suit the  Daily Press filed against the OES, seeking the records.

An OES spokesperson offered no comment on the requests citing pending litigation.