TERROR THREAT SHUTTERS SUPREME COURT, COURT OF APPEALS
(Posted January 18, 2021) Early Friday afternoon, someone called the clerk’s office of the Supreme Court of Virginia and reported that a bomb was in the building. This prompted an immediate evacuation. Bomb-sniffing dogs combed the building but found no explosives. This terror threat was empty. The building’s staff was allowed to return to work later that afternoon.
The FBI warned us this would happen. After the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol showed how real was the threat to American constitutional democracy, the bureau issued a bulletin on January 10, alerting state and federal authorities of plans for armed protests in all 50 state capitals. The bulletin forecast actions starting January 16; Friday’s call came a day early, based on that timetable.
The same afternoon, Chief Justice Don Lemons entered a judicial-emergency order closing the courthouse – which houses the Court of Appeals and its clerk’s office in addition to the Supreme Court and its clerk – from Saturday, January 16 through Thursday, January 21. Only three of those dates are particularly meaningful in this context, because the building is customarily closed on weekends, and today is a state holiday.
The chief justice’s action is perfectly sensible. The reason behind the need for it is not. Only once before in our nation’s history has an election generated overt challenges to the rule of law and to our electoral system. That sparked the worst war in our history. In all other elections, the losing party has accepted the outcome, however grudgingly, and has done the responsible thing: prepare for the next election and try to win that one. This is one of the norms that has held our nation together for nearly two and a half centuries.
As we’ve seen in the past four years, our norms aren’t what they used to be. Perhaps it would be better to phrase it as, those norms don’t carry the weight that they used to. The president has taken delight in ignoring those norms, including the two that the authors of How Democracies Die regard as the most crucial: mutual tolerance and forbearance.
The president’s scorn appears to have been contagious; now his supporters feel no compunction about using terrorism – “The use or threat of violence to intimidate or cause panic, esp. as a means of achieving a political end”; Black’s Law Dictionary, 10th ed. at 1701 – to overturn the recent election. Judging from the number of National Guard personnel in the District of Columbia right now, it would seem that those supporters will be unable to prevent the inauguration of president-elect Biden on Wednesday. Hence their decentralized approach to terror: spread it around the nation.
I’m a hundred miles away from Capitol Square in Richmond. The bomb hoax didn’t affect me directly. But a lot of people who work in that building are folks I care about deeply. I have plenty of friends who work there. Some wear robes, but most don’t; they’re clerks and court executives and librarians and receptionists and Capitol Police officers and more. More fundamentally, if you’re a Virginian, and especially if you’re a Virginia lawyer, this was a bomb threat against you. It was a threat of violence against the heart of the civil and criminal justice system in Virginia.
Civilized society created the courts system as a means of peaceful resolution of disputes. The alternative, self-help, could predictably lead to violence on a regular basis. This is the painful irony of these violent threats – in the name of seeking political power, they seek to deprive us of the means to peace.
The clerk’s offices will be functioning this week; staff will be working remotely from their homes. You just can’t pay them a visit. The judicial-emergency order states that if anyone needs an extension of time because of the building closure, “such extensions shall be liberally granted upon appropriate motion.” Note that this means you don’t get an automatic extension under Code §1-210; you have to ask for it.