Support needed for repeal
Virginia is near and dear to the hearts of so many genealogists.
It’s the site of some of the earliest European settlements in North America. Its laws and its leaders played pivotal roles in the founding of the United States. Its conflagrations — literal and figurative — have led to records losses (think the burning of Richmond) and records creation (think the burning of Richmond).
And it’s the ancestral home of many of our lines. Certainly The Legal Genealogist traces lines back to the Old Dominion, and I know I’m hardly unusual in that respect.
And now the Virginia Genealogical Society is asking for our help — for the help of the entire genealogical community — to reverse a law that has affected records access there.
Last year, in March 2013, the Virginia Legislature passed a law that is the poster child for the law of unintended consequences: Senate Bill 1335, “An Act to amend and reenact § 18.2-308 of the Code of Virginia, relating to concealed handgun permits; confidentiality of permittee information.”1
The purpose of S. 1335, now Chapter 659 of the 2013 Acts of Assembly of Virginia, was to protect the privacy of those who have applied for and received permits to carry concealed weapons. The fiscal statement accompanying the bill simply said that it “prohibits the clerk of a circuit court who issued a concealed handgun permit from disclosing any applicant information” and that it was “not expected to have any material fiscal impact on the court system.”2
Well, that was a big of a mistake. Because the concealed weapons law in Virginia used to say this:
The clerk of court may withhold from public disclosure the social security number in response to a request to inspect or copy any such permit application…3
And now it says this:
The clerk of court shall withhold from public disclosure the applicant’s name and any other information contained in a permit application or any order issuing a concealed handgun permit…4
Notice the lack of any time constraint. Nothing that says it affects only those who now have carry permits. And when did Virginia start issuing permits to carry? Right around 1895.
And where are the permits and orders recorded in Virginia?
In the court records.
Ordinary every-day bread-and-butter genealogy-type court records.
As a result of Chapter 659, there’s been a dramatic change at the Library of Virginia, Virginia’s fabulous state archives-and-library in Richmond, where — until this law was passed — you could simply pull a reel of microfilm out of a drawer and immerse yourself in the minutia of 18th, 19th and early 20th century court records.
But because of this law, the court record books and the index rolls to those record books were pulled from the accessible microfilm. And not just a few records. At last count, there were more than 220 rolls of microfilm including court order books, indexes of court order books, indexes to court cases that are affected. At least 135 of those reels contain nothing but records that are more than 100 years old.
And talk about no fiscal effect on the courts? Tell that to the circuit court clerks in Virginia’s counties, who — because of this law — can’t simply let members of the public do their own searches in those older records. Now, they have to assign staff to do lookups in these older volumes for fear that one of them might contain a shred of information about an 1896 permittee.
And now we’re being asked for our help in getting this changed.
As early as tomorrow, Thursday, a new bill — 2014 VA HB 100 offered by Virginia Delegate Scott Lingamfelter — may come up before a subcommittee of the Virginia House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee. It would limit the closure to a far more reasonable five year period. If it passes the House, it will then need to be passed by the Senate before going to the Governor.
The measure has the unqualified support of the Virginia Circuit Court clerks — and it needs our unqualified support as well. Specifically, the Virginia Genealogical Society asks us to help by emailing the members of the House committee. Here are the members’ emails and you can copy and paste this list right into the To: section of your email program:
[email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]
The message we want to get across is our own variation on the following that we can use as a model:
I urge you to support HB 100 of Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, now before the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee. This bill will cure an unintended consequence of prior legislation which has denied researchers access to Virginia historical public records going back to the 1700’s.
The Library of Virginia has had to withdraw 222 reels of microfilm from research access. Local clerks have been compelled to deny researchers access to county order books and indices from the 1800’s.
Please cure this barrier to genealogical and historical research in Virginia by passing HB100.
Records access is up to us. Please join me and the Virginia Genealogical Society and the broader genealogical community in helping to reverse this law of unintended consequences in Virginia. And if we succeed in the House, we’ll need to speak up again when it gets to the Senate and again when it gets to the Governor’s desk.
Let’s speak up, now, for records access in Virginia.
- Chapter 659, 2013 Acts of Assembly of Virginia, Virginia Legislative Information System (http://lis.virginia.gov : accessed 25 Aug 2013). ↩
- Ibid., Department of Planning and Budget, 2013 Fiscal Impact Statement, SB1335ER. ↩
- Code of Virginia, § 18.2-308, in effect as of 19 March 2013. ↩
- Code of Virginia, § 18.2-308, in effect as of 20 March 2013. ↩