Gloucester 40 attorney praises Supreme Court ruling, calls sanctions ‘colossally wrong’

By Dan Parsons, Daily Press – 3/5/2011

RICHMOND — After nearly three years of legal wrangling, 40 Gloucester residents on Friday were spared $2,000 apiece in court-imposed fines stemming from a civic effort to oust several county supervisors.

The state Supreme Court sided with the group, known as the Gloucester 40, stating in a 14-page ruling issued Friday, “the circuit court erred in imposing sanctions against them.”

Upon hearing the news Friday morning, Patricia Cowan – a Gloucester 40 principal member – screamed with elation loud enough to cause her dog to join the howl, she said.

“The old cliché of restoring faith in our justice system applies here,” Cowan said Friday. “How does one comment on obtaining something they’ve fought for almost three years? It was a wonderful release. The first thing that hit my mind was ‘Justice.’

“I had to believe that the court would see that you can’t fine someone for exercising their Constitutional rights.”

In 2008, the group attempted to remove Gloucester County supervisors Teresa Altemus, Bobby Crewe, Michelle Ressler and Gregory Woodard from office with a recall petition. The petitions were later thrown out on technicalities, and Gloucester taxpayers ended up footing bills of about $233,000 to pay the attorneys hired by the four supervisors to defend against the petitions and criminal charges that ultimately were dismissed.

Circuit Court Judge Westerbrook J. Parker later ruled against the petitioners, sanctioning each with $2,000 in fines and court costs related to their efforts to oust the supervisors. Parker ruled the petitioners tried to use the court system to settle a political dispute, rather than waiting for an election.

The Supreme Court on Friday threw out that decision base primarily on two points: That the petitioners were not active parties to the suit between the Commonwealth and the supervisors, and that non-active parties cannot be sanctioned according to Virginia law.

Once the petitioners file their complaint with the circuit court, they are no longer a party to litigation, much in the way a victim is not party to a suit in a criminal case, the Supreme Court ruling states.

“A petitioner in a removal action is analogous to a victim in a criminal proceeding,” the ruling reads. “In both cases, while the Commonwealth’s Attorney may be advancing the interests of the petitioner or victim, the real party in interest is the Commonwealth.”

Because the Gloucester 40 were not parties to the suit, they were not subject to sanctions by the circuit court, the Supreme Court found.

Steven Emmert, the attorney who argued the Gloucester 40’s case before the Supreme Court, said in his opinion Parker’s decision “was not merely wrong.”

“It was colossally wrong. It was spectacularly wrong,” Emmert said. “If the court had not reversed that decision based on these points, it would have reversed on one of the other issues we raised because that (Parker’s) ruling could never have stood.”

One of the four embattled supervisors is already out of office and the Gloucester 40 is moving to challenge the remaining three.

Altemus lost a 2009 reelection bid to Supervisor Carter Borden, 18 percent to 83 percent, the largest margin of defeat in the county’s history. Cowan hopes to repeat that feat in November by challenging Woodard for the Ware District seat on the Board of Supervisors.

“I consider this a big win for us — the Gloucester 40 — for Gloucester County and for Virginia,” Cowan said. “We’re going for the next big win in November. Imagine three new faces on the Board of Supervisors.”