Republican Senator Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) is suing Democratic legislative leaders over plans to restrict the public’s access to the Pocahontas Building during the upcoming regular session due to a rise in COVID-19 numbers.
On Tuesday, DeSteph filed a complaint in Richmond Circuit Court against Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax County), Senate Rules Committee Chair Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), both the clerk of the House and the Senate as well as the Virginia Division of Capitol Police.
The complaint argues that barring citizens from entering the Pocahontas Building, which houses lawmakers’ offices, will deny DeSteph the ability to meet with constituents or other members of the public during session and violates First amendment rights.
“I believe that the declared orders are a violation of the 1st Amendment and inconsistent with open access to government,” DeSteph said in a statement provided to The Virginia Star. “I cannot allow this to go unchallenged. We are a government of the people, by the people and for the people, and I will work tirelessly to ensure that Virginians have unfettered access to meet with me at my legislative office.”
The complaint was filed by Virginia Beach lawyer Tim Anderson, who is running for the 83rd District of the House of Delegates in 2021, and asks for an injunction to compel the defendants to allow in-person access to legislators.
While discussing the matter on the John Fredericks Radio Show, Anderson claimed the two Democrats are “weaponizing COVID for a political agenda.”
Included within the complaint is an email from Senate Clerk Susan Schaar detailing the plan for the office building. According to Schaar’s email, only credentialed legislative employees and current legislators will be allowed in the building, and just one legislative aide per office will be allowed in order to follow social distancing protocols.
The plan also includes creating a hotline number to take and transmit messages from constituents.
DeSteph also said in his statement it was obvious that a hotline does not provide adequate access to government officials.
As of Wednesday afternoon, it is not clear who will defend the group of defendants or when a judge will actually hear arguments.
The Star reached out to both Filler-Corn and Locke for comment on the suit, but did not get responses before press time.
Several Republican and Democratic General Assembly members weighed in on the decision though.
“I think it’s the best [idea] of a bunch of bad choices,” Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County) told The Star. “During session the Pocahontas Building is a germ factory. You’ve got thousands of people going through that building every day, jammed in like sardines in elevators and hallways with low ceilings and the crappy old ventilation system.”
Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) agreed that it was a good idea to restrict access amidst the pandemic and said there was no need for the public to go into the building because the House will be fully virtual again.
“I don’t plan to attend the Pocahontas building the entire session and I don’t know of any Delegate that is,” Levine said. “It would be a silly thing to do [when] we can do everything virtually from our home.”
Republican lawmakers did not take the same stance as their colleagues across the aisle.
“What we’re really doing is we’re walling off legislators from getting the single most important input that we could get during a session, which is input from constituents and input from concerned Virginians,” Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach) told The Star. “I think it’s a bad idea, but it’s consistent with what we have seen in the last six to 12 months since the Democrats have taken power in Richmond.”
Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) said he wished alternatives for limiting the occupancy of the building would have been implemented instead of essentially shutting the building down in its entirety, and there is no reason to go into the office if he can’t meet with constituents or other parties concerned about legislation.
Del. Rob Bloxom (R-Accomack County) called the decision a hindrance to being able to pass good legislation.
The General Assembly 2021 regular session begins in just over a month on January 13.
– – –
Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Background Photo “Virginia House of Delegates Chamber” by Anthony-22. CC BY-SA 4.0.