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The U.S. Supreme Court says Virginia can refuse public documents to out-of-state residents, but lawmakers can ensure access for all.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
While reading the recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion on Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, it’s easy to imagine Justice Samuel Alito scrawling out the ruling with a quill pen.
Alito concludes that “most founding-era English cases” and 19th century American law “do not support the proposition that a broad-based right to access public information was widely recognized in the early Republic. ... FOIA laws are of relatively recent vintage.”
Regrettably, Alito’s conclusions are shared by a unanimous court, but Virginia lawmakers are still free to embrace the Information Age and revise the state’s outdated sunshine law.
The court upheld the commonwealth’s decision to deny public records to out-of-state residents, a restriction applied in only a handful of states, including Tennessee and Arkansas. The justices concluded that the practice does not violate the constitutional rights of individuals who unsuccessfully seek information from public officials because no such right exists.
The case was brought by a Rhode Island man, who once lived in Virginia, who filed an information request in an attempt to understand why his child support petition had been delayed by nine months. Also party to the lawsuit was a California businessman who was rebuffed in attempts to gather real estate tax records for clients.
Alito’s observation that the men got “much” of what they requested is little comfort. The Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act, used by the Rhode Island father, is limited to information about the individual making the request.
Whether or not the Founding Fathers believed in a constitutional right to government transparency, citizens in a modern democracy have a reasonable expectation that they can hold public officials accountable regardless of where they are located. Today’s world is less and less defined by historic boundaries. Individuals commonly own property in multiple states. Business transactions crisscross the continent and the globe. Travel and family ties bring us into regular contact with governments in many jurisdictions.
Virginia municipalities and state agencies routinely provide information to out-of-state parties, and we commend them for their efforts. But access to public records should not be subject to arbitrary whims. Responsibility lies with Virginia legislators to elevate the principle into law.
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