Sen. DeSteph wants the public to have access to lawmakers in both the House and Senate again.
RICHMOND-One Virginia state senator wants the General Assembly to reopen to the public. To make that happen, he’s asking a judge to step in.
On Tuesday, Sen. William DeSteph filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court, naming Sen. Mamie Locke and Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, as well as the Capitol Police as defendants. The senator feels that keeping state offices closed to the public is a violation of the First Amendment. He wants to see them reopened, with in-person meetings allowed.
The Pocahontas Building, right next to the Capitol, houses the offices for all House and Senate members. In November, Filler-Corn announced that due to constantly rising COVID-19 cases, the building would be closed to the public when the next General Assembly session starts in January. Even then, only credentialed staff and lawmakers will be allowed in. As of December 8, the Virginia Dept. of Health reported 262,730 cases of the virus since March. The state also saw 15,467 hospitalizations and 4,260 deaths due to COVID-19.
DeSteph’s attorney, Tim Anderson of Virginia Beach-based Anderson Law, lays out several arguments for why the offices should be reopened. He points out that across the Commonwealth, every Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, General District Court and Circuit Court are open and handling business in-person.
“While the governor holds press conferences surrounded by visitors and dignitaries from outside the state, the Courts try cases daily, the DMV processes licenses and city halls collect taxes throughout the Commonwealth,” Anderson writes.
Keeping the Pocahontas Building closed to the public, Anderson writes, is inconsistent with every COVID-19 policy on the state and local levels.
Where’s the First Amendment Come In?
Anderson also argues that keeping the building closed violates the constitutional rights of both his client and local residents. In this case, that includes the right to free speech, the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition the government.
If people can go to grocery stores, Anderson argues, if they can go to court or anywhere else and not violate the governor’s orders, then why can’t the building stay open?
“Less restrictive options exist,” Anderson wrote, “ such as requiring appointments and capacity restrictions to the building. If a constituent can contest a speeding ticket in the Commonwealth in person, then that same constituent should be able to exercise their right to freedom of speech.”
History, however, would seem to be on the defendants’ side. Since the pandemic started in March, Attorney General Mark Herring has successfully defended the Commonwealth’s lockdown measures 13 times. One example came in November, when a judge shut down The Nation’s Gun Show. Even if he doesn’t take this case, each of those prior wins set a precedent for future lawsuits.
It’s also unclear what’s different between the upcoming session and the one that just finished. The Pocahontas Building was closed to the public during the three month special session. No one in the House or Senate filed a lawsuit against the decision then.
The next session of the General Assembly starts Jan. 13, 2021. Just as in the special session, the Virginia Senate will meet in person, while the House of Delegates will handle business remotely.
Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].