House panel moves to protect petitioners

A bill would make it more difficult to punish people who attempt to remove elected officials.

By Kimball Payne and Cory Nealon, The Daily Press – 1/31/2009

RICHMOND — Gloucester County petitioners on the hook for $80,000 worth of fines took their civic battle to Richmond this week and scored key victories in the House of Delegates.

They also picked up the support of what could become a key ally, the American Civil Liberties Union.

On Friday, the House Privileges and Elections Committee backed a bill that would make it more difficult for judges to punish people who sign petitions attempting to remove elected officials from office. The proposal — sponsored by Dels. Harvey Morgan, R-Gloucester, and Tom Gear, R-Hampton — cleared the committee 13-8 and now moves to the House floor.

“This way, the citizens have no fear of reprisals,” Morgan said after the vote.
Morgan’s bill brings a simmering political soap opera from Gloucester to the state capital.

The legislation represents local lawmakers’ reaction to Circuit Court Judge Westbrook J. Parker’s Dec. 17 ruling, in which he ordered the petitioners to pay $2,000 each for their unsuccessful attempt to remove from office four county supervisors — Teresa Altemus, Bobby Crewe, Michelle Ressler and Gregory Woodard.

Parker said the petitioners, who gathered nearly 6,000 signatures, abused the judicial system for political purposes. He ordered the county to pay most of the supervisors’ legal tab — $129,321.53 — with the petitioners’ share to reimburse the county.

During testimony in Richmond, many lawmakers cited the transcript of the December hearing in Gloucester. Parker’s words didn’t sit well with some attorneys who serve in the General Assembly.

“The transcript sealed it,” Morgan said.

The legislation can’t reverse the judge’s ruling, which hadn’t been officially filed with the court as of Friday. But Morgan said that if lawmakers passed changes to the state code, it could bolster an appeal on the citizens’ behalf.

Morgan said he was optimistic that his proposal would eventually pass because so far, there was little opposition. But he stopped short of predicting a victory.

“But don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” Morgan said.

Meanwhile, on Friday, the ACLU announced that it would argue that Parker’s decision violates the petitioners’ First Amendment right to petition the government.

“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,” said Kent Willis, executive director of ACLU’s Richmond office, said in a news release.

The ACLU’s decision comes five weeks after the petitioners sought the civil liberties agency’s help to appeal the judge’s decision. During that time, the petitioners secured attorney L. Steven Emmert of Virginia Beach to represent them.

The ACLU, in conjunction with the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Charlottesville, will work with Emmert. However, the ACLU and the center will remain mostly on the sideline. They plan to file an amicus, or “friend of the court,” brief stating their opinion of Parker’s ruling.

“We don’t have a dog in this fight,” said Josh Wheeler, associate director of the center. “We’re here solely on the principle that this case implicates important First Amendment issues.”

Before it can file, Parker must file his order in Gloucester County Circuit Court. Anthony Troy, who represents Altemus and Ressler, is helping to draft the order and said it would be filed last week. Efforts to reach Troy on Friday were unsuccessful.