The Virginia Supreme Court issued a ruling in death penalty public records case that could “become a license to withdraw records,” said Megan Rhyne, Executive Director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
The ruling reversed a Fairfax County Circuit Court’s order that ordered full disclosure of “the detailed floor plan of the execution chamber (C-Unit) at Greenville Correction Center, the detailed diagram of the control panel and wiring for the electric chair, the manufacturer’s installation and instruction manuals for the electric chair”, and redacted portions of the current and prior execution manuals.
It was acknowledged by The Virginia Supreme Court that legislative preference is for “openness”, but it also found there is an exemption of certain documents, such as engineering and architectural drawings, of governmental buildings to protect security.
The court adopted the standard of other jurisdictions, requiring the circuit court to accord “substantial weight” to The Virginia Department of Correction’s (VDOC) determinations.
“Once satisfied that proper procedures have been followed and that the information logically falls within the exemption clause, courts need go no further to test the expertise of the agency, or to question its veracity when nothing appears to raise the issue of good faith”, The Court wrote.
VDOC presented operations expert testimony that the disclosure “could jeopardize the C-Unit, the VDOC employees in the C-Unit, the inmates and the public visitors who are attending an execution”. The standard used by the circuit court was not discernable, so it was ordered to apply the higher standard upon remand.
The Court further found that an exclusion under Code §2.2-3705.2 (6) is a blanket exclusion. Unlike (4) of that Code, (6) does not contain the phrase “to portions of” when referencing documents, indicating the General Assembly did not intend to “require redaction of documents that fall under the security exemption of subsection (6)”. Thus, the section of the circuit court’s order requiring disclosure after redaction of security exempt documents was reversed.
Rhyne said she was “very disappointed” with the order, “I fear that the language in this ruling will become a license to withdraw records”, she said. “We need to bring people’s attention on things like this”.
Source: Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
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