Richmond, VA – The Supreme Court of Virginia today ruled in favor of 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.
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 were still required by Judge Parker’s order to pay the fees.
Today’s Supreme Court ruling reverses that order, holding that the fees were wrongly assessed against the petitioners. The court noted that under the statute allowing citizens to petition to remove government officials, the petitioners are not parties to the case. The petitioners merely initiate the court case, which is then pursued by the Commonwealth. Since the petitioners were not parties, the court did not have the power to sanction them.
“The General Assembly saw in 2009 that the government has no interest in punishing citizens for lawful civic engagement, and they acted to protect individuals who may petition to remove elected officials in the future,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “We are pleased that the Virginia Supreme Court has now protected the Gloucester petitioners from sanctions for their actions before the law was enacted. Between the General Assembly and the Virginia Supreme Court, the First Amendment right to petition government for redress of grievances is now much more secure.”
The Supreme Court of Virginia’s ruling may be found at http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opnscvwp/1092323.pdf.
Contact: Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director, 804-644-8022