AP’s Sarah Rankin reveals that Virginia lawmakers who are attorneys have a privilege they can use to repeatedly delay court proceedings.
Sometimes accountability stories are hiding in plain sight, but getting to them requires first recognizing the potential and then doing a whole lot of digging. Virginia reporter Sarah Rankin did both of those things.
After seeing a one-sentence mention in a legal trade publication, Rankin began the hunt for a deeper story about a lawyer-legislator who used a continuance privilege granted to lawmakers to consistently delay court hearings in Virginia and elsewhere. That privilege is not available to most other attorneys. Rankin dug into the details in court records of one case that involved Virginia lawmaker Jeff Campbell, the defense attorney for a one-time NASCAR race driver accused by his estranged wife of domestic violence.
The woman, Miranda McClure, had not previously done a media interview about the situation. However, she talked to Rankin and explained that she believed Campbell was abusing the privilege, having delayed the appeals trial nine separate times.
Rankin then filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Virginia Supreme Court’s office of the executive secretary, which produced data on the number of times the continuance privilege was used in circuit court by lawyer-legislators over a three-year period. Rankin analyzed the data to determine the number of cases in which Campbell had used the privilege and how that compared to other lawyer-legislators. Campbell had employed the privilege at least 30 times, more than double any other lawmaker.
That comparison helped underscore the questions the story raised about whether Campbell was acting appropriately. The story showed up on more than 200 websites, had 2,100 Facebook shares and tweets, and was used by major news outlets, including The Washington Post.
For seizing on the brief mention, then following up with determined research and reporting that revealed a potential for abuse by lawyer-lawmakers, Rankin wins this week’s Best of the States award.