|NMU||VIRGINIA||Secret Courts||Oct 5, 2000|
State bar proposes to limit internet access to court records
- Proposed legislation would make divorce papers only available to in-person inspection at the courthouse
The Virginia State Bar has been given permission by its executive committee to lobby to prohibit internet access to court documents in divorce cases. The bar’s family law section created a task force on technology with the concern that internet access to divorce pleadings would create privacy problems for litigants.
Richard Byrd, a lawyer and task force member, explained divorce papers contain private information such as assets, account numbers and social security numbers. Furthermore, Byrd told reporters the papers “may contain allegations of adultery, sodomy, sex abuse, spouse abuse and all manner of intimate details of life that a litigant does not really want made public.”
Byrd acknowledged divorce papers have historically been available to the public, but to gain access an interested person had to physically go to the courthouse. Also, because a person could not request records anonymously, courts have kept track of who accessed the files. Internet access, on the other hand, could allow “software robots” to take credit card numbers and other similar private information from the court records in a matter of seconds. “This gives a whole new meaning, and a significant fear, to the concept of public access,” Byrd said.
Byrd also cautioned that internet access could create “nefarious” litigation tactics. He suggested a husband might threaten to post illicit photos of his wife engaged in sexual activity unless she agreed to waive alimony or other benefits. “Is this the sort of divorce negotiation we really want?”
The proposed law, which would amend an existing statute, automatically seals divorce papers from electronic access. The documents would still be available for inspection at the courthouse.
Joseph Condo, president of the state bar, acknowledged First Amendment issues may be implicated by the proposed law, but said to the media the issue was not a “highly charged political issue that’s going to get us in hot water.” Executive Director Thomas Edmonds said the state bar’s lobbying efforts should begin soon to neutralize lobbying efforts by what he called “the First Amendment freaks.”
Forrest “Frosty” Landon of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government said the proposal would “set a bad precedent.” He expressed concern that limiting access in divorce cases would lead to limiting access to other documents that have historically been available to the public. “If it can be applied to divorce cases, then what’s next?”
Landon agreed the nature of divorce proceedings can be precarious and parties may make untruthful allegations out of spite, but he does not see that as sufficient justification from limiting access. “Maybe this is an opportunity for self-policing.” He intimated that lawyers should refrain from making unfounded, scandalous allegations rather than making allegations and hiding it from the public. He also pointed out that the proposed law would not stop unscrupulous parties from posting harmful information on the internet on their own.
The coalition has invited Byrd to its annual conference and hopes to open dialog about the access issues, Landon said.
© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press