Petition organizers get legal help

Virginia Beach attorney agrees to represent the “Gloucester 40,”
and will appeal their fines.

By Cory Nealon, The Daily Press – 1/28/2009

GLOUCESTER – — Virginia Beach attorney L. Steven Emmert has agreed to represent the 40 Gloucester residents who were fined after unsuccessfully petitioning to remove four county supervisors from office.

Emmert, one of the state’s most recognizable appellate attorneys, is expected to file an appeal on behalf of the petitioners, who were fined $2,000 each.

“This is obviously a matter of significant public concern,” Emmert said on Tuesday. “These people spoke out and they were punished for it.”

Substitute Circuit Court Judge Westbrook J. Parker ordered Gloucester County to pay $129,321.53 of the legal bills accrued by the supervisors — Teresa Altemus, Bobby Crewe, Michelle Ressler and Gregory Woodard.

Parker also ordered the petitioners, who he said abused the judicial system for political purposes, to reimburse the county $80,000. His reasoning: that a majority of Gloucester residents did not support the petitions and, therefore, should not have to pay the supervisors’ legal costs.

Emmert, who said he is still acquainting himself with the case, is considering two angles for the appeal.

One, that the ruling violates citizens’ First Amendment rights to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Secondly, that the petitioners gathered nearly 6,000 signatures in good faith, something Parker contested.

Emmert expects to be hired by week’s end. He did not say who would pay his fees.

Petitioners previously said they didn’t have the money to hire an attorney. Garr Johnson, one of several petitioners who has acted as a spokesman for the group, said only that a “group of concerned citizens” has agreed to employ Emmert.

A spokesman for the Gloucester Coalition, a civic group of approximately 150 citizens, said earlier this month that it had contacted Emmert about the case.

The coalition spokesman, David L. Peebles, did not return phone calls on Tuesday.

Emmert’s imminent involvement raises the question of what role, if any, the American Civil Liberties Union will play in the appeal.

Petitioners asked the ACLU soon after Parker’s Dec. 17 ruling to appeal the case. However, the civil rights organization has yet to decide if it will participate.

“We’re still processing this,” said Kent Willis, executive director in the organization’s Richmond office.

The ACLU often partners with private attorneys; however, it usually requires those attorneys to waive their fees. Emmert has given no indication he would do so.

That doesn’t preclude the ACLU’s involvement, Willis said. It could act as a “friend of the court,” in which case it would not directly represent the petitioners, but would file legal documents to bolster their case.

“There’s always the possibility that, whatever happens, we could work together,” Willis said.

Emmert is the third attorney to represent the petitioners in this matter.

As Gloucester’s commonwealth’s attorney, by law Robert Hicks was the initial counsel. Hicks recused himself after being disqualified from prosecuting a criminal indictment of the four supervisors that was later thrown out of court.

The court had trouble finding a replacement, but eventually appointed John “Jack” T. Randall, a private practice attorney from Suffolk, as substitute commonwealth’s attorney to handle the case. Randall had the petitions dismissed from court because he said they weren’t in accordance with state law.