On New Years Eve, Senator Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) struck a deal with leaders of the Virginia General Assembly that will provide space for constituents to meet with legislators near the Capitol grounds even though the Pocahontas Building and Capitol Building remain closed to outsiders due to COVID-19.
DeSteph said the out-of-court settlement was a win. “This will allow citizens, subject matter experts, and other professional staff to meet face-to-face with legislators during the upcoming regular session. This is a huge victory for the First Amendment and for open access to government for all Virginians,” the press release states.
“The decision to close the Pocahontas Building was a clear violation of the First Amendment and communicated an eagerness by Senator Locke, Speaker Filler-Corn, and the Northam Administration to shut out public input in the legislative process,” DeSteph said in the release. “Virginians will now have both the opportunity and the ability to choose to meet with their legislators, if they elect to do so.”
Clerk of the Senate Susan Schaar told The Virginia Star, “The Clerk of the House and I will be exploring space in close proximity to either the Pocahontas Building or the science museum [where the Senate holds socially-distanced sessions] where members of the legislature may meet with constituent groups, no more than ten, everyone wears a mask, for no more than an hour at a time, and it will have to be on a reservation basis.”
The compromise is the result of a lawsuit filed by DeSteph against Schaar, Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), Senate Rules Committee Chair Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), the clerk of the House, and the Virginia Division of Capitol Police. Earlier in December, DeSteph said that blocking constituents from access to the Pocahontas Building, and thus blocking them from meeting legislators, was a First Amendment violation.
On Thursday, Eastern District Court Judge David Novak advised both the plaintiffs and the defendants to take a break from the hearing and try to come to a private agreement. According to a court transcript provided by DeSteph’s lawyer Tim Anderson, Novak warned the defendants’ lawyer Samuel Towell that DeSteph had a strong case, and told the legislators that they did not want a federal court involving itself in the matters of the state legislature. Anderson is a candidate for Virginia’s 83rd House district.
“Lawsuits between Democrats and Republicans are completely unhelpful. We need people to work together. That’s why I proposed the mediation. You refused to do it,” Novak told Towell. “I recall Mr. Anderson said he would be willing to do it.”
As Novak described the potential solution, he praised Schaar for her work in the Senate and warned DeSteph of his own responsibility in the deal. Novak told DeSteph, “I know you’re just as patriotic and caring about our Commonwealth as these women are over here, but you’ve got to do your share. Wearing a mask is not a political statement.”
The judge warned that if legislators weren’t careful to follow the agreement, he might rule in favor of the plaintiffs in the future. He asked DeSteph, “And will you give me your word that you’ll comply with all the masks and social distancing?”
DeSteph said yes, and the judge asked him to encourage other legislators to do the same, knowing that if they fail to keep the terms of the agreement, the case could go back before Novak who would rule against the plaintiffs.
On Friday, Anderson and Locke told The Star that the full details of the arrangement weren’t public yet.
Schaar said that in 2019, 5,000 people visited the Pocahontas building. “When you put COVID on top of the normal flu season, and you have that many people in a building where you cannot have social distancing, elevators are extremely small,” Schaar said, “it makes it extremely difficult to provide the safety we feel we need to provide the constituents of Virginia.”
In addition to the provisions of the new agreement, Schaar told The Star that despite the challenges of COVID-19, Virginia citizens already have greater access to the legislature than ever through zoom meetings, and live streams. General Assembly staff also provided call-in lines to allow constituents to express their opinions.
“We felt that we had opened the process up even more than it had been in the past,” Schaar said. “People, say in southwest Virginia are not able to get to Richmond, six to eight hours drive, as easily as other people and yet they would have the ability to watch committee meetings and floor sessions with the new technology.”
About 20 people stood outside the courthouse on Thursday supporting DeSteph, according to local activist Mike Dickinson and candidate for the 68th House of Delegates district.
“Those who came, came to show support for Tim Anderson and DeSteph’s case that government has the absolute duty to be open,” Dickinson said. “The Democrats cannot just close buildings so they can hide from a public that is very disgruntled this year.”
He added, “I have been a supporter of [DeSteph’s] for a long time and it is good to see we have a fighter in the state Senate.”
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