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Virginia Supreme Court Denies Public Access To Audio Of Oral Arguments

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Since 2008, the Virginia Supreme Court has denied public access to audio recordings of oral arguments.
Michael Pope
Since 2008, the Virginia Supreme Court has denied public access to audio recordings of oral arguments.

For the last five years, justices at Virginia's Supreme Court have denied public access to audio recordings of oral arguments. The sessions are recorded, but the audio files are kept secret in a court that also forbids video recording and does not provide transcripts.

Officials in the court's Office of the Executive Secretary even declined our request to be interviewed for this story, sending a written statement explaining that the lack of transparency is a way to shield private conversations justices might have with each other during oral arguments.

Virginia Press Association executive director Ginger Stanley says that's unacceptable.

"I don't believe that new technology should stand in the way of the transparency of the court system," says Stanley.

Gregg Leslie is legal defense director for the Arlington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"Well, it just seems unnecessary to allow the justices to make private comments like that that don't serve any function in the hearing and use that as an excuse to keep the entire thing confidential."

Some lawyers say the court's decision to block public access is justified. Ed Weiner is a Fairfax County lawyer.

"If a judge leans over to another judge and says something during that oral argument, to me that's part of the deliberation," he says.

But Fairfax County Del. Scott Surovell says the Virginia Supreme Court needs to find a way to fix the problem, or face the potential General Assembly action.

"These cases that the Supreme Court is deciding are some of the most important cases in Virginia, and it's important to have as much sunshine on the public part of that process as possible."

Next month, a panel of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council will be considering parts of government that are not subject of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, which includes the state Supreme Court. Leaders with the Virginia Press Association say they will be pressing for more transparency at the Commonwealth's top court.

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