State Senator Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) and attorney Tim Anderson filed a petition for injunction against Democratic legislators to preserve constituents’ in-person access to General Assembly members. State Senator Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), Chair of Senate Rules, and Speaker Eileen Filler Corn (D-Fairfax) decided to close the Pocahontas building to the public, which hosts office appointments for both the House of Delegates and State Senate.
“The closure of the legislative office building to the public is contrary to the explicit historical purpose of the building to allow the public access to its elected legislative members, especially during the General Assembly Session,” read the lawsuit. “Most importantly, the right to assemble and address lawmakers at the state and federal levels is fundamentally protected by the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution: a. ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.'”
Tuesday, DeSteph announced in a press release that Anderson would file the petition. According to the senator’s statement, the Democratic legislators decided it was safer for only government officials and employees to enter the building.
“[The Pocahontas building] would only be open for credentialed legislative employees and current legislators during the upcoming Regular Session of the General Assembly,” he said.
Included in the lawsuit was a copy of the email sent to legislators concerning the closing of the Pocahontas building to the public, dated December 2.
The Democratic legislators offered a hotline operated by a “limited number [of administrative assistants” as an alternative solution for in-person access. The press release criticized the idea, likening its efficacy to the backlogged Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) hotline.
The Virginia Star reported previously on the VEC’s pattern of overpaying unemployment claims during the pandemic, as well as the lack of communication and transparency for those ordered to repay portions of those claims.
In an interview with The Star, Anderson explained that these Democratic legislators don’t want to engage with constituents that disagree with them. He explained that nobody voted on the measure – only Filler-Corn and Locke decided on it.
“Really the undertones here is that they’ll have a lobby day,” he said. “They just don’t want to have all these pro-Second Amendment people bothering them in the [upcoming] special session, so they’re using COVID as some kind of weapon to pursue their own political ideologies. You can’t say the DMV can be open but the offices of the General Assembly can’t be open during the special session.”
Anderson added that DeSteph reached out to take action – the state senator believed in the importance of in-person access for his constituents.
“The state senator wants to be able to meet with constituents at his office. [And] as a citizen, he has standing to say that we want to have access to the legislature,” stated Anderson. “The idea is this: there’s a better way to do [COVID restrictions]. You can make it by appointment only, you can limit building capacity. The courts are open – people are in there fighting their speeding tickets every day. The governor’s doing press releases every day for Breonna Taylor about no-knock warrants, with people from out of state present. But they think it’s too dangerous to meet their constituents in person?”
Delegate Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) tweeted in support of the lawsuit.
“The General Assembly Building should absolutely be reopened to the public, and we should be doing our work in person.”
Anderson finalized his remarks on the measures undertaken by Locke and Filler-Corn succinctly.
“If you can put in a direct quote: f*** ’em.”
The General Assembly Building should absolutely be reopened to the public, and we should be doing our work in person. https://t.co/5InXQLzFos
— Kirk Cox (@kirkcoxforva) December 8, 2020
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Corinne Murdock is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Network. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to [email protected].
Background Photo “Virginia Capitol” by Anderskev. CC BY 3.0.