It’s Sunshine Week, an annual week-long national dialogue between the news media and public officials about the importance of open government and freedom of information. So it was an opportune time for a dogged Associated Press reporter to discover that a Prince William County court had a non-disclosure policy on releasing documents to reporters, but not the general public. And then for the Prince William court to promptly rescind that policy on Thursday.
You can see the policy of the Prince William General District Court in writing, in the photo above, in effect since 2011. Reporters may only see the basic warrant and complaint in a criminal case, but no more. No motions, no orders, no booking sheets, no nothing. And be sure to get a photo ID of that pesky reporter, according to the policy issued by former Chief District Judge Wenda Travers. This is not how other district courts operate in Virginia, in my experience and that of my Post colleagues, these being courts funded by the taxpayers and subject to laws providing for open and transparent government.
So on Wednesday afternoon, trusty AP reporter Matt Barakat snuck away from a hearing he and I were covering on Joaquin Rams to check on motions in the case of Ronald Hamilton, charged with killing Prince William police Officer Ashley Guindon last month. And after admitting to a clerk that he was a reporter, he was told he could not see those motions, and was handed the policy you see above. The clerk told Barakat that members of the public could read the files, but a reporter could not because “we know you’d write about them.”
Barakat inquired of the chief clerk of the Prince William district court, Jacqueline Ward, who explained that the policy had been imposed by a former chief judge, Travers, now retired. Ward then checked with the current chief judge, former Prince William assistant commonwealth’s attorney Will Jarvis, and Jarvis ordered the no-reporters policy junked. Ward did not return my call Thursday and Travers was not home when I called.
Megan Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told Barakat she had never heard of a court clerk issuing a blanket policy denying court records to journalists. “Wow,” she said. “They can’t make a blanket prohibition. They cannot pick and choose who gets to see public records. I’m just astounded.”
Barakat, who knows his way around a courthouse as well as any reporter, was just doing his job, as well as getting the jump on The Post. It’s not the first time he’s scooped us. But in the process he opened up a little sunshine into the Prince William County courthouse.