The administrative office of the Virginia court system is subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, according to a recent opinion from an open government advisory panel.
The opinion from the Freedom of Information Advisory Council indicated that the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia failed to comply with the FOIA when it withheld information about salaries of administrators and other employees in the state’s magistrate system.
A magistrate in Madison County, Craig L. Beauchamp, had requested salary information by name for fellow magistrates in the 16th Judicial District and for other judicial officials. Instead of getting the list of names with specific pay data, the OES provided only a list of salary ranges with brief explanations about the ranges.
When Beauchamp complained, the FOI council first considered whether the FOIA applied to the court administrative agency at all. The council cited a prior opinion of the attorney general that a circuit court is a “public body” and noted that the OES is created by statute and run by a Supreme Court appointee. “It therefore appears that OES, like a circuit court, is also an agency of the Commonwealth supported wholly or principally by public funds and therefore likewise is a public body subject to the provisions of FOIA.”
The advisory council interpreted the law to require disclosure, upon request, of the rate of pay – by name – for officers, officials, and employees of public bodies.
A spokesperson for the court said the OES hoped to satisfy Beauchamp’s request. “We have attempted to contact Mr. Beauchamp in an effort to resolve this matter,” said Katya Herndon, director of legislative and public relations for the OES.
Beauchamp declined to comment on his request when contacted by Virginia Lawyers Weekly.
The FOI Advisory Council was itself created by statute, under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. According to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, “[T]he council’s opinions are persuasive and its answers are generally respected by citizens and government alike.”
Magistrate pay has been debated by Virginia leaders for several years. Virginia’s magistrate system was revamped by legislation approved last year, although the General Assembly did not provide funds for proposed salary increases. Full time magistrates make $32,242 to $54,588. Chief magistrates earn $39,678 to $63,237.
There are 440 magistrates in the state, about 380 of them full time employees.
Magistrates often are the front line of the judicial system, making the initial call on whether there is probable cause to arrest a suspect. They decide whether a defendant should be freed or sent to jail after arrest and whether someone should be detained because of mental health issues. Magistrates also issue search warrants and emergency protective orders.
Under the system implemented last year, oversight of magistrates was shifted from circuit court judges to seven regional administrators who report to the OES. Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr. called the change “the most important structural reform since 1974” when the entire court system was reorganized.