With assistance from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, the ACLU of Virginia plans to file a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the First Amendment broadly protects the right to petition government.Gloucester, VA - The ACLU of Virginia has informed a group of 40 Gloucester citizens that it will file a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that a Gloucester Circuit Court judge erred when he ordered members of the group to pay $80,000 in legal fees after they failed in an attempt to remove four members of the Board of Supervisors from office.
The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has agreed to assist with the writing of the brief and may formally join the ACLU on the brief before it is filed.
“Voters in a democracy should not be afraid to challenge government officials who appear to be misusing their office or neglecting their duties,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “There is nothing more threatening to liberty than punishment of citizens who try to hold government officials accountable for their actions.”
“In this case,” Willis added, “it seems that reasonable citizens did their homework and then made a good faith effort to follow an obscure law to have certain public officials removed from office. If the sanctions are allowed to stand, not only will the constitutional rights of the Gloucester petitioners be violated, but it will almost certainly have a chilling effect on others who might consider exercising this right in the future.”
Virginia law allows individuals who collect signatures from registered voters equal to 10% of the total number of votes cast in the most recent election in a jurisdiction to petition the court for removal of one or more elected officials who represent them. The court may then remove those officials from office for “neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties.”
Before imposing sanctions on the Gloucester petitioners, the judge threw out the case in part because the signature forms used by the petitioners did not precisely comply with the law.
Several bills now in the Virginia General Assembly would provide added protections for individuals who file removal petitions. HB 2049, HB 2466 and SB 1393 prevent monetary sanctions from being imposed on petitioners in removal proceedings. HB 2465 and SB 1394 not only protect petitioners from monetary sanctions but also prevent courts from throwing out removal cases on technicalities.
Contact: Kent Willis, 804-644-8022