Justices strike down Gloucester fines

By Larry O’Dell, Associated Press – 3/4/2011

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – The Virginia Supreme Court on Friday unanimously struck down a judge’s order fining 40 Gloucester County residents $2,000 each for trying to oust four county supervisors.

The court decided the case on a legal technicality without addressing the central issue of whether the sanctions violated the residents’ constitutional right to petition the government for redress of their grievances.

The ruling was nevertheless a victory for the group that came to be known as the “Gloucester 40.” They circulated petitions in 2008 to have four supervisors removed for allegedly meeting in secret.

Substitute Judge Westwood Parker, who dismissed charges that supervisors violated the open-meetings law, also fined the petitioners for actions that he said were politically motivated and an abuse of the court system. The petitioners denied that they were politically motivated, noting that many of them had voted for the supervisors they were trying to oust.

The justices ruled that once the petitions were filed in court, the state — not the citizens — became the party in the case, so the people who gathered the signatures were not subject to sanctions.

“A petitioner in a removal action is analogous to a victim in a criminal proceeding,” Justice Leroy F. Millette Jr. wrote. “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.”

L. Steven Emmert, attorney for the petitioners, said the constitutional issues raised in the appeal were more compelling than the narrow statutory issue decided by the justices.

“Even if they hadn’t had this statutory ground, they would have reversed it on other grounds,” Emmert said. “There’s no way they’re going to let a sanction like this stand.”

Anthony F. Troy, attorney for the supervisors, noted that the justices did not contradict Parker’s view of the petitioners’ motives.

“They did not in any way suggest Judge Parker’s observation that this was the worst abuse of the judicial system he’s ever seen was wrong — they did not reverse that,” Troy said. “Rather, the petitioners weren’t parties, and the sanctions statute only applies to parties.”

The petitioners drew support from civil liberties and free-speech groups, and the case prompted the General Assembly to change state law in 2009 to specifically forbid sanctions against residents in such cases.

“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,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.