Senator Surovell and Delegate LeMunyon Introduce Legislation
to Reverse Supreme Court FOIA Decision
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 14, 2016
Nadine Slocum, Legislative Aide 571.249.4484
Richmond, VA – This week, Senator Scott Surovell (D-Mt. Vernon) and Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly), introduced legislation, S.B. 494 and H.B. 817, respectively, that would reverse the September 2015 Virginia Supreme Court decision of Department of Corrections v. Surovell. The case contained two highly problematic rulings:
(1) The Court held that if one item in a public record was exempt from disclosure under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), then the entire document could be withheld instead of the government providing redacted records; and
(2) The Court further held that a Court reviewing a FOIA response was required to give “substantial weight” to a government official’s determination as to whether a document is exempt from disclosure under FOIA.
“This decision was troubling,” said Senator Surovell. “It basically directs the Courts to trust the government in controlling access to information.”
“FOIA was adopted so Virginians could hold the government and elected officials accountable,” said Senator Surovell. “We have the right to know how taxpayer dollars are being spent and government policy is being created, and it does not make sense for a court to give deference to an agency’s single-handed decision about what Virginians should be able to see.
The legislation does two things. First, it creates a process whereby government documents can be produced with redactions instead of withheld. It also creates a process to allow courts to review documents in camera to determine whether the documents should be released prior to a court making a FOIA-related decision. Second, it requires a court to give no special weight to an agency’s decision as to whether records should be exempt from production.
“This legislation restores Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to say what we always thought it said,” LeMunyon remarked. “Access to government documents is fundamental to our First Amendment rights of a free press and our ability seek the redress of grievances. As a practical matter, S.B. 494 and H.B. 817 ensure that parents will have access to policy decision records of local schools boards, allow government contractors to access information about how contracts are awarded to conduct the state’s business, among a wide range of issues including public safety, social programs, taxation, and the environment—virtually every matter in which government is involved,” said LeMunyon.
A link to the House bill and the Senate bill may be found here.
A link to the Virginia Supreme Court decision may be found here.
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