ACLU plans legal action in the Virginia Supreme Court

Forty Gloucester voters fined $80,000 despite new law preventing courts from sanctioning individuals who file petitions for removal of public officials

Gloucester, VA – A judge has ordered 40 Gloucester residents to pay a total of $80,000 in fines after they attempted to use an obscure Virginia law to remove four members of their Board of Supervisors from office. The 40 residents plan to appeal the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court, and the ACLU of Virginia will support them with an amicus brief arguing that the fines chill the First Amendment right to petition the government.
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 misusing their office. After several Gloucester Supervisors were indicted on criminal charges last year, the 40 citizens began collecting signatures for a removal petition, which they presented to the court last fall. The Gloucester County Circuit Court Judge Westbrook Parker dismissed the case and fined the petitioners after ruling that the petitions were not properly designed and the petitioners were politically motivated.
“By levying these heavy fines, the judge sent a message to every citizen in the state that they could be severely punished for simply exercising their First Amendment right to petition the government,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.
The judge’s initial ruling last fall so shocked state legislators that they quickly and nearly unanimously passed a new law in Virginia preventing courts from fining citizens who exercise their right to use Virginia’s “removal” law. Unfortunately, the new law will not take effect until July 1, meaning the Gloucester group may still be saddled with the sanctions.
“We are disappointed that the judge did not change his mind in light of the recent actions by the Virginia General Assembly,” said Willis. “By passing a law in direct response to Gloucester situation, state legislators made it clear that the state has no interest in punishing individuals who exercise their First Amendment rights by petitioning for the removal of elected officials.”
Under the new state law, removal petitions may not be thrown out of court because of minor 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 (§ 24.2-235 and § 24.2-238).

Contact: Kent Willis, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director, 804-644-8022