Richmond, VA – The Supreme Court of Virginia will hear arguments tomorrow in a case involving 40 Gloucester County residents who were ordered to pay a total of $80,000 in fees after they attempted to use an obscure Virginia law to remove from office four members of the county’s board of supervisors.
The ACLU of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Gloucester residents in June of last year. The brief claims that the court sanctions chill the First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances.
Under Virginia law, citizens who have collected signatures from 10% of the voters in the relevant political jurisdiction may ask a court to remove elected officials who are abusing their office. In 2008, after several members of the Gloucester Board of Supervisors were indicted on criminal charges, 40 voters began collecting signatures for a removal petition, which they presented to the Gloucester County Circuit Court in the fall of 2008. Judge Westbrook Parker dismissed the case and assessed fees after ruling that the petitioners were politically motivated.
“The First Amendment must protect the right of citizens to use the law made available to them by legislators,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “To have a law allowing for removal of public officials and then to sanction those who use it not only nullifies the law, but it also scares citizens away from using the courts to address grievances.”
Judge Parker’s ruling spurred state legislators into action. In the 2009 General Assembly, lawmakers unanimously amended the state code to prohibit judges from fining or imposing fees on citizens who exercise their right to use Virginia’s law on removal of public officials.
Under the amended law, which took effect on July 1, 2009, removal petitions may not be thrown out of court because of technical flaws, and persons who sign or circulate petitions cannot be liable for any costs associated with removal proceedings, including attorney fees and court costs, and may not have sanctions imposed against them (See § 24.2-235 and § 24.2-238). However, because the law was amended after the fees had been imposed on the Gloucester petitioners, they are still required to pay them unless a higher court overturns Parker’s ruling.
“Lawmakers spoke loudly and clearly once they saw that the judge had misinterpreted the law in a manner that infringed on the First Amendment,” added Willis. “The General Assembly saw that the government has no interest in punishing citizens for lawful civic engagement. Now we are asking the Virginia Supreme Court to see this the same way.”
A copy of the amicus brief can be found online at: http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/20100526GloucesterVaSCtAmicusmerits.pdf
Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, 804-644-8022Where: Virginia Supreme Court, 9th and Franklin Streets, Richmond, Virginia
When: January 11, 2011, Seventh case on docket
Case: Johnson v. Woodard
Lawyer for Appellants: L. Steven Emmert, Esq.