Kaine signs Gloucester-inspired bill

By Cory Nealon, The Daily Press – 5/8/2009

RICHMOND — After weeks of anticipation, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine signed a bill that protects citizen-led efforts to remove elected officials, Del. Harvey B. Morgan, R-Gloucester, said Thursday.

Kaine’s approval comes after state lawmakers last month rejected an amendment the governor made to the bill, which stems from the failed ouster of four Gloucester County supervisors last year.

The governor had proposed allowing judges to fine people who petition to remove elected officials if they are proved to have acted with “malicious intent.”

Critics, including Morgan, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the amendment would have stripped the bill of its purpose: to ensure that people aren’t afraid to petition the government for redress of grievances.

“It would have had such a chilling effect on anyone considering signing petitions in the future,” Morgan said.

The bill states, in part, that people who petition to remove elected officials won’t be subject to court costs or defense attorney fees should their effort fail. It is effective July 1 and not retroactive to the Gloucester case.

The legislation was drafted after Circuit Court Judge Westbrook J. Parker last December fined 40 Gloucester residents $2,000 each for filing petitions — with almost 5,000 signatures of other Gloucester residents — to remove from office supervisors Teresa Altemus, Bobby Crewe, Michelle Ressler and Gregory Woodard.

Parker dismissed the petitions on technicalities, then levied the fines, which he said were to go toward paying the supervisors’ attorneys fees.

Parker said the petitioners abused the judicial system for “purely political ends.” The four supervisors represented a new majority voting bloc on the seven-member board and had been charged with misdemeanors for holding secret meetings to conduct county business, in violation of state law. The charges were thrown out of court by another judge.

The ruling on the fines, which Parker has yet to file with the court, sparked outrage among members of the legal community, including First Amendment advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In January, Morgan and two other state lawmakers — Del. Tom Gear, R-Hampton, and Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg — introduced in the General Assembly bills to protect future petitioners.

A condensed bill was approved in February by state lawmakers 134-1, but was in limbo until Kaine signed it Wednesday.

L. Steven Emmert, who agreed to represent the Gloucester petitioners in the wake of the fines, said Thursday that Kaine’s decision won’t alter the appeal he plans to file on their behalf.

According to previous court filings, he intends to argue, among other things, that 39 of the 40 petitioners were not represented in court the day they were fined, and that Parker’s ruling could violate the First Amendment.

Jim Cornwell, who represents Crewe and Woodard, said because the bill is not retroactive it should have no bearing on the case.

What effect the bill will have on future removal efforts is unclear.

John McGlennon, a government professor at the College of William and Mary, said the bill helps to reduce any chilling effect Parker’s order may have had. However, it does nothing to clear up the vagaries of state law that pertain to removing elected officials.

“I don’t think it has broader implications” than preventing judges from sanctioning petitioners, he said.