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Senate defeats bill to let judges order online publication of legal notices

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, Jr., R-James City, left, walks away after conferring with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, right, before the start of the Virginia Senate floor session Friday at the state Capitol in Richmond. - Bob Brown

The Senate of Virginia voted 26-13 on Friday to defeat a measure that would have given judges discretion to direct that legal notices be posted on an electronic medium in lieu of in a print newspaper.

The Senate voted down House Bill 1589, sponsored by Del. Jeffrey L. Campbell, R-Smyth, following a 30-minute debate. The bill’s supporters said most people now get their news online. Opponents said many readers still get information from print newspapers, particularly in communities without broadband service.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, spoke in favor of Campbell’s bill, which had passed the House of Delegates Jan. 26 on a 99-0 vote.
Norment sponsored a similar measure, dealing with foreclosure advertisements, that was defeated in a Senate committee on Feb. 1.

Norment, who teaches third-year law students at the College of William and Mary, said on the Senate floor: “I am aware of young people who read the news every day who have never subscribed to a newspaper in their life, but yet they remain very well informed.”

Sen. John A. Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, who supported Campbell’s bill, asked Norment whether such notices are “a government mandated subsidy” of the print media.
Norment answered: “unequivocally, absolutely, yes.”

Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., R-Franklin, opposed the bill, asserting that local newspapers “are very important” to rural communities that do not have the same access to broadband as do urban and suburban communities.
“You cannot assume for a second that everyone is up to date — as up to date — as we think you are in your own area,” Stanley said. “There are people that depend on this.” He added: “We cannot leave behind those that have not kept up.”

Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, D-Alexandria, who also opposed the bill, said the issue “is not about keeping newspapers in business. This is about the public’s right to know.”

Sen. William R. DeSteph Jr., R-Virginia Beach, who backed the measure, said newspapers are available online. He called it “a progressively, forward bill.”

Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, an opponent of the bill, responded: “This idea you can see everything online works fine if you have broadband, but there are a lot of people who don’t have broadband.”

The Virginia Press Association, a trade group for newspapers in the state, is creating a website where people can search for public notices published by newspapers across the state. It plans to introduce the PublicNoticeVirginia.com website in April.

It will include legal notices routinely published in newspapers and issued by government agencies and private entities such as law firms, contractors and utilities. Those include public meeting notices, foreclosure notices, requests for bids on contracts, and proposed zoning changes.

acain@timesdispatch.com
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Twitter: @AndrewCainRTD