Why it’s difficult to get court data in Virginia
…and what the General Assembly should do about it
Originally published March 2016 at VirginiaCourtData.org
In February 2016, a Circuit Court in Virginia ruled that the state’s Supreme Court does not have to release a bulk collection of lower court case information, even though the collection is maintained to provide access to the records through a public website. The judge ruled that the Supreme Court is not the custodian of the records and does not have authority to release them; instead, the records belong to the individual circuit court clerks who provide them to the Supreme Court.
Indeed, the Supreme Court’s case information website does not provide a unified interface for accessing the records it has collected. Instead, it maintains this political separation by requiring the user to choose one of the 118 circuit courts that use the system from a drop down menu on the first page. This separation does nothing to serve the public. It’s reminiscent of traveling from one courthouse to another to collect information, the kind of geographic boundary that computers are supposed to eliminate.
What makes this situation even more frustrating is that the Supreme Court compiled this database to make administration of the lower courts more efficient, but it refuses to share those benefits with the public. According to expenditure data on Virginia’s Commonwealth Datapoint website, operation of the Supreme Court’s computer systems costs taxpayers more than $5 million a year. It’s unclear how much these systems cost to build in the first place, but the Supreme Court has spent more than $2.5 million in software maintenance since 2012. The case management system is offered to Circuit Courts for free to incentivize its use over private systems, which explains why all but two of 120 courts use it. The Supreme Court has pooled taxpayer funds to dangle the largest, most enticing carrot. There’s no good reason that the public shouldn’t also reap the benefits of having a central database of case information, but to add insult to injury, they are forced to pay for artificial roadblocks that prevent it.
The problem with the Supreme Court’s argument and the judge’s ruling against releasing the case information in bulk is that the lower courts have already given implicit permission to do so by using the system. Any software developer who looks at the Supreme Court’s public website will tell you that it’s possible, indeed relatively easy, to write software that gets around the roadblocks that are in place. Because it’s possible for a person to click the buttons on the Supreme Court’s website to go from court to court, running the same search in each one, it’s possible for a computer to be programmed to complete those actions automatically, and much faster. This technique is called web scraping and it’s so common that there are a number of tools and examples available for free online. The Supreme Court’s website provides search options that make it easy to find any and every case in the system, which makes bulk collection a viable option for web scrapers.
Scraping data from the Supreme Court’s website is not a hypothetical idea. In 2014, at the request of a journalist from the Roanoke Times, volunteer software engineers created free, open source software to get around the website’s roadblocks and allow anyone to perform a statewide name search. Since then, the software has been modified and used to help journalists and lawyers collect bulk data and investigate low prosecution rates for sexual assault cases, hospitals hiding malpractice lawsuits, and criminal defendants being denied their constitutional right to counsel. In the past week, the software has been used to download more than one million criminal case records from the last five years, proving that the database the Supreme Court refuses to release is available to anyone with the skills to get it, or enough money to hire someone to do so.
The Supreme Court could spend more taxpayer dollars to change the website and make web scraping more difficult, but it’s virtually impossible to prevent it all together. The right thing to do is to make the bulk data available to anyone who asks for it, dropping the farce that it’s not possible and eliminating the need for custom software development that is typically too expensive for anyone monitoring the courts in service of the citizens of Virginia.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has decided to fight against the release of case information in bulk, even though they have released this collection to members of the public in the past. The Code of Virginia provides that the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court shall operate a case management system for the circuit courts (§ 17.1–502). The legislature must act by amending the law to state that the Supreme Court’s case management system shall provide free remote public access to summary case records, which it already does, and that the Supreme Court shall produce those summary case records in bulk at the request of any member of the public. This amendment will not impose any burden on the Supreme Court as the technology to implement the amendment is already in place. The amendment will simply prevent the Supreme Court from limiting access to public information that is readily available. The amendment will also not impose on the rights and duties of circuit court clerks. The current law does not require clerks to use the Supreme Court’s case management system. Instead it provides that clerks can establish their own case management system using a private vendor.
The Supreme Court’s collection of summary case information is essential to any effort to monitor and report on Virginia’s judicial system. While the Supreme Court refuses to officially release this collection, anyone with the proper software can reproduce it. The Code of Virginia must be amended to ensure transparency in our judicial system.