Virginia Courts Now Provide Bulk Data

Unfortunately, my work may still be useful

Yesterday, HB 780 went into effect. Here’s a summary —

Public access to nonconfidential court records. Provides that a clerk of court or the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court shall make nonconfidential court records or reports of aggregated, nonconfidential case data available to the public upon request.

There’s no question that this is a win for transparency. I’ve been advocating for the General Assembly to enact a law like this one so that I wouldn’t need to collect and distribute court data anymore. I’m just not sure that this law will facilitate the journalism and academic research that relies on the data available here.

Civil case records are not addressed by the law and will most likely not be available from the state in bulk. I have collected these records along side criminal records and provided them on my website. They have been used by researchers studying evictions and by journalists writing about medical malpractice and medical debt.

Names and birthdays will not be included in requests. I agree that it’s important to protect personal information, but there should be a balance in this situation. I collected names and partial birthdays from the state’s website, but the data that I make publicly available has the same omissions. After talking with academic researchers and journalists, I realized that these data are sometimes essential to their work and decided to make them available by request. I wish the state would come up with a similar system.

The state doesn’t seem to be especially interested in disassociating names from court records. This same law requires that the state provide a website where anyone can search a name for criminal cases, statewide, for free. So maybe the state is specifically trying to prevent mass marketing campaigns. The problem is that scraping the website is still trivial — anyone with money to run a mass marketing campaign can scrape the website themselves.

Speaking of money, the law allows the court to charge a fee for fulfilling bulk records requests. While these fees may be insignificant for most, it’s hard to understand why they are necessary at all.

The law allows clerks to require that each requester provide a legal address. While the law doesn’t say anything about denying out-of-state requests, I can’t help but wonder if that will come up given Virginia’s FOIA laws.

The one thing that I will be able to completely do away with is vacircuitcourtsearch.com — a website that searches a name across most of the state’s circuit courts. As I mentioned, the state will provide this exact functionality by this time next year. So, yay!

What really piqued my interest about this bill was the impact statement. There were two bills in the last general assembly that were both similar to this bill. HB 1794 was largely the same and HB 1844 addressed statewide searches. In both cases, OES determined that the necessary software and IT upgrades would cost more than a million dollars. For this bill, OES says there will be no fiscal impact. This is… curious.

Finally, some of the language in the new law is troubling and makes me wonder if I’ll be able to continue distributing court data.

However, nothing in this section shall be construed to permit any reports or aggregated case data to be sold or posted on any other website or in any way redistributed to any third party.

Hopefully I’m being pedantic here, but what right does the government have to dictate what a private citizen does with public records? If the records are non-confidential, I should be able to give them away to anyone and everyone, especially if I had to pay the government for them.

I’m looking forward to hearing from people who request court data from the state under this new law. If that’s you, send me a tweet.

I make Virginia court case information available, in bulk. Twitter: @oilytheotter