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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Improving Our Justice System With Technology

The following column appeared in the Mount Vernon Gazette on September 8, 2010.


There have been several articles around the state addressing a Virginia Attorney General’s opinion I requested that concluded that under current law, court clerks can install, use, and charge for electronic recording systems to record court proceedings. This decision could affect many people, so I would like to clarify what it is all about and its implications.

I have practiced law in Fairfax County for 15 years and go to court nearly every day, but most people rarely think about the court system until they are called for jury duty, are the victim of a crime, get a speeding ticket, or are injured. Fairfax County’s General District Court processed over 285,000 traffic citations in 2009 so the odds of ending up there sooner or later are pretty good for many people.

Most people believe that an accurate record of court proceedings is necessary, an important element of a fair judicial system, and most probably assume that Virginia has a system in place to provide an accurate record of proceedings. This is true in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and the United States District Courts, but not Virginia.

Suppose you get a ticket for running into someone in an intersection. You go to General District Court because you think you were incorrectly charged. During trial, the other driver testifies that you had a stop sign and you are convicted. Afterwards, you go to the intersection and discover that there is no stop sign. You can appeal your case for a new trial in Circuit Court, but you have no way to clearly confront the other driver with their false statement, which was given under oath and in court, because no one hired a court reporter to record the trial.

In a court proceeding, creating and preserving the record — what is spoken by everyone and introduced in evidence in court — is critical. Dozens of appeals are dismissed every year because the record was not preserved or clear. People also testify a little more "carefully" when being recorded and judges are more diligent in their rulings. Everyone is more likely to get the right result in court because the record is clear and not based on what different people thought they heard.

Today, if you want to have a complete record in a Virginia case, you must hire a court reporter that costs between $350 and $500 per day at your own expense. This often does not make sense in shorter hearings, such as trials for traffic tickets or hearings on motions. For litigants who cannot even afford attorneys, court reporters are often not considered at all, even when you might have a child’s future at stake.

During my campaign, I proposed authorizing electronic recording of court proceedings as part of a specific government efficiency proposal. After speaking with Fairfax County Circuit Court Clerk John Frey last fall, I introduced legislation to accomplish this that was killed in a House of Delegates’ subcommittee on a party-line vote.

The Attorney General’s opinion basically validates my legislation by making it unnecessary, and gives Virginia’s court clerks the green light to begin installing recording systems, once they have funding without further approval from the General Assembly. Ultimately, recording court proceedings will improve the administration of justice in Virginia, provide greater assurance of an accurate court record, improve access to justice for people of limited means, make our justice system more efficient and save Virginians millions of dollars.

I am also assembling my legislative agenda for the 2011 Session. My constituents are the source of some of my best bills so please send me an email at DelSSurovell@house.virginia.gov if you have any ideas for legislation. Thank you again for allowing me to serve as your delegate.

Here are some articles regarding this decision:

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