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Judge erred in sealing court documents, Va. Supreme Court rules

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  1. Court Access
In the first decision ever in Virginia to address the issue of moot arguments, the state Supreme Court decided Thursday…

In the first decision ever in Virginia to address the issue of moot arguments, the state Supreme Court decided Thursday that a judge incorrectly denied a local newspaper access to trial exhibits in a 2011 child murder case.

The justices also ruled that the case was not moot despite the fact that the contested documents sought by the Newport News Daily Press were released to the public two years ago.

“The newsworthiness of a particular story is often fleeting,” Justice William Mims wrote in the decision. “To delay or postpone disclosure undermines the benefits of public scrutiny and may have the same result as complete suppression.”

In 2010, Lillian Callendar and her boyfriend Michael Stoffa were each indicted for second-degree murder of Callendar’s 17-month-old daughter and for felony child neglect of that child as well as her 27-month-old daughter.

Both Callendar and Stoffa were found guilty of the charges at separate hearings in 2011. After Callendar’s hearing and before Stoffa’s, a Daily Press reporter asked a court clerk for access to Callendar’s court file, which included photos and autopsies of the children. Although Virginia has a presumption of access to court documents, the clerk asked the judge presiding over the case whether she should release them, according to Hunter Sims, the newspaper’s attorney.

Circuit Court Judge H. Vincent Conway, Jr. subsequently sealed the trial exhibits and documents until the conclusion of both cases. The newspaper filed a motion to intervene and Conway agreed to rescind the sealing order but kept the autopsy report and photographs sealed.

Peter Dujardin, a Daily Press reporter who covered the case, said in an interview that the clerk should not have needed to ask the judge if it was okay to release the files.

“There was no seal in place before we asked to see the file,” Dujardin said. “It’s difficult for us to do our jobs when we’re denied access to the evidence because we can’t tell our readers the full story of what happened when we can’t see it.”

The newspaper argued that since the murder trials were concluded so quickly and the appeals process took so long, their lawsuit should still be heard even though the sealed records were eventually released.

“The criminal cases went very rapidly because of considerations for speedy trials, but most appeals are slow,” Sims said. “So a judge could very well say that he’s closing a trial, we appeal, and three days later he can open the information again so we can access it, but it’s too late.”

Eventually, the case landed in the state Supreme court, where the justices declared that the case was not moot.

Even though the records were no longer newsworthy, the issue of arbitrarily sealing court records might resurface and must be addressed under the mootness doctrine, according to the opinion.

“We got to look at the files so what’s the big deal?” said Sims. “At that point old news is no news. So that was really the issue. Now we have a Virginia case right on point telling the courts when the mootness doctrine would and would not apply to a situation like this.”

Dujardin said the press has to fight for access to courtrooms because nobody else will.

“We were afraid that if we didn’t fight it they’d treat us poorly and it would happen again and again,” Dujardin said. “We just didn’t want to be treated like our request to see the file was not important.”