Fairfax makes opinions available

We’re happy to celebrate good news for openness. In that spirit, we applaud the Fairfax County Circuit Court.

In a move that seems to have been unannounced and unpublicized, Fairfax has begun to post on its website, without cost or restriction, copies of letter opinions issued by its judges.  See http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/courts/circuit/circuit_court_opinions.htm.  Kudos to Clerk John Frey, Chief Judge Dennis Smith, and all others involved in making this happen.

This practice (posting opinions online) is an easy, obvious way to promote judicial transparency and public access to the law.  It’s common in federal trial courts but vanishingly rare in Virginia trial courts. To our knowledge, only the Loudoun County and City of Norfolk circuit courts did this prior to Fairfax.  (See below for more on Loudoun & Norfolk, and please let us know if you know of any others.)  Fairfax is a pretty high profile, high opinion volume court, and we hope that Fairfax choosing to make its opinions freely, publicly available online will start a trend.

Prior to this, Fairfax provided copies of its opinions to a small and privileged group of recipients that used them for profit and imposed restrictions on access (such as Lexis, Westlaw, and Virginia Lawyer’s Weekly). At some point in the past, the Fairfax Bar Association posted opinions, but they transitioned over time to making access to their copies a “members only” perk and to posting the opinions only temporarily.

It is really bad policy for public judicial records to be provided preferentially to certain private persons/entities, who then impose restrictions on use such that these records largely become captive to those private sources over time. Circuit court opinions are an important public judicial resource that easily can be made available to all and that should be made available to all. Fairfax now gets it, and we think that’s wonderful.

A bit more discussion and tech details on Fairfax, Loudoun, and Norfolk after the jump.

Tech details on Fairfax

Fairfax’s opinions are posted in PDF, scanned and with the judge’s signature redacted (presumably pursuant to Va. Code § 17.1-293(B)). Having the opinions printed to PDF, with a stamp or electronic signature indicator by the judge, would be ideal, but scanned PDFs are certainly good. As of this posting, there are four available opinions, beginning with Yvonne Christ v Flinthill Space Communications Trust, et al., no. CL-2008-8220 (June 14, 2013).

Loudoun and Norfolk details

Loudoun and Norfolk deserve praise for posting their opinions, and each has a sizable collection of opinions, but their technical approaches aren’t perfect.

Loudoun posts its opinions in varied formats through CivicPlus on Loudoun’s own website, with many available only in Word format. Access to the text without the problems of OCR is great, but it’d be nice to have a copy that looks reliable/official, without needing to get another copy from the clerk.

Norfolk was a pioneer in providing its letter opinions online, but, bizarrely, Norfolk does so through issuu.com, a document sharing site that forces users to register and use an awkward viewer. It is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to download or print opinions, and issuu.com imposes typically one-sided terms of service. If a Virginia citizen wants a Norfolk opinion, they must enter into a contract that, among other things, entails assuming indemnity obligations and subjecting oneself to California courts and law. (If you want to know where Norfolk acquired the authority to require Virginia citizens to do this, here’s a hint: there is nothing that gives them that authority.)


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