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Miyares wants access to sealed records of former Parole Board chair

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Attorney General Jason Miyares wants the Supreme Court of Virginia to grant him access to sealed records of a former chair of the Virginia Parole Board, which he's now investigating.

Miyares filed the motion Wednesday asking the court to grant him access to the sealed records, which relate to a prior investigation of Judge Adrianne Bennett, a former parole board chair, by the state's Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission (JIRC).

Bennett was the chair of the Virginia Parole Board in 2020 during a time it was later found to have violated rules in its process used to release certain people from prison. The Office of the State Inspector General in 2020 found the parole board violated law and policy, including not properly notifying victims and prosecutors about people being released from prison on parole.

JIRC investigated Bennett and suspended her from the bench in Virginia Beach, where she is a juvenile court judge. Bennett filed a petition at the Supreme Court in 2021 challenging her suspension. The court denied her request but put the entire file under seal, only opening up portions of the records last month after the Richmond Times-Dispatch challenged the sealing.

Miyares' filing said the Virginia State Police are assisting in his investigation of the parole board, a probe Gov. Glenn Youngkin requested in an executive order.

The General Assembly elected Bennett as a judge on March 3, 2020, and she was seated on April 16 of that year. Miyares' filing said that starting on March 3, she was subject to rules governing judges, complaints about which are reviewed by JIRC.

"The Attorney General’s investigation to date has revealed that during these 44 days, Judge Bennett took direct, and often personal, action with respect to the parole and early release from parole of many violent convicted felons," the attorney general's motion says.

"The Attorney General has determined that a full, transparent accounting of Judge Bennett’s actions as Chair of the Board is necessary to restore public confidence in the Board."

Virginia law protects the confidentiality of JIRC investigations. But if JIRC believes a judge has violated the state's Canons of Judicial Conduct, it will make a public filing at the Supreme Court. No such filing was ever made regarding Bennett, and the court was divided on whether all of the records she filed on her own in an attempt to challenge her suspension should become public.

The court's ruling on releasing some of her records was 4-2, and the two dissenting justices argued that there was no satisfactory legal reason to keep the records under seal and that they had lost their confidential character.

Miyares' motion said he agreed, arguing that it appeared to be the first time a sitting judge in Virginia had challenged a suspension that way.

"Neither the plain language of the Code nor the general confidentiality interests articulated by the Supreme Court of the United States contemplate continued confidentiality of judicial review proceedings when the subject judge asks a state’s highest court to intervene to stop an investigation she alleges is unlawful," the attorney general's motion said.

"And neither of these authorities contemplate continued secrecy when a state’s governor has ordered an investigation mirroring the Commission’s inquiry into the same judge."

Miyares also argued that Bennett's interest in the continued sealing of the records was inferior to his interest in ensuring the integrity of an ongoing investigation by law enforcement.

Records showed the inspector general was continuing to investigate allegations against Bennett and the board, but the result of those investigations remains unclear.

pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

The Supreme Court of Virginia issued an opinion Thursday saying it would unseal some records in a case filed by Virginia Beach Judge Adrianne Bennett, who was the chair of the Virginia Parole Board during a time it was later found to have violated rules in its process used to release certain people from prison.

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