September 26, 2006

Order Violates Virginia Law and the Right to Witness Government Processes

Staunton , VA --The ACLU of Virginia today sent a letter to Judge Humes J. Franklin asking that he rescind an order signed last Thursday sealing all search warrants issued by the City of Staunton Circuit Court.
“Under Virginia law and a long tradition of open judicial proceedings, warrants are public record,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis.
“This is a dangerous sign of the times,” added Willis, “as we see government officials at all levels becoming more secretive. The presumption has always been that warrants and other court records and proceedings are open to the public unless the court has a specific reason to seal them. It is frightening to think that we may be moving into an era where the presumption is that judicial proceedings are carried out in secret.”
“Our trust in the government depends on our ability to observe it,” said Willis. “When the system is closed, trust is lost.”
According to news reports, Judge Franklin’s order came at the request of Staunton Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Robertson. Franklin’s order states, “that search warrants and their affidavits and any related papers filed with them in the Clerk’s Office of this Court be sealed until further order of this court.”
The ACLU maintains that the judge’s order directly violates Section 19.2-54 of the Virginia Code, which states that search warrants must, “be preserved as a record and shall at all times be subject to inspection by the public.” The law allows records of the courts to be sealed, but only after a Commonwealth’s Attorney has shown cause in an ex parte hearing.
“We have a saying in this country that no one is above the law,” continued Willis. “This applies to judges, too.
“Our hope is that this was some kind of bureaucratic flub, an oversight, and that Judge Franklin will act immediately to rescind the order upon receipt of our letter.”
The letter to Judge Franklin is signed by Willis and ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg, Esq. A copy of the letter can be found at:

Contacts: Kent Willis or Rebecca Glenberg, 804/644-8022