Following Lawsuit, Virginia Legislative Session Will Offer Public Space

The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. (Photo via Anderskev/Wikipedia Commons)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Only hours before a sitting Virginia state senator died of Covid-19, another state senator called the opening of a public space at the state’s upcoming legislative session, otherwise closed because of the ongoing pandemic, a “huge victory.” 

“The decision to close the Pocahontas Building was a clear violation of the First Amendment and communicated an eagerness by Senator Locke and Speaker Filler-Corn, and the Northam administration to shut out public input in the legislative process,” state Senator Bill DeSteph said in a statement Friday evening. 

A Virginia Beach Republican, DeSteph had filed a lawsuit against Senate and House Democratic Leadership after they ordered the state’s main legislative building closed to the public in the wake of the virus, which has clogged rural hospitals and killed over 5,000 Virginians.

State Senator Ben Chafin, a Lebanon Republican, joined that total later Friday evening, according to multiple statements posted by elected officials. His passing brought the state’s deaths to 5,117.

Shortly after filing the complaint, DeSteph downplayed the coronavirus while defending his demand to open the building to the public. 

“In the same time period that we’ve had those [deaths], look back last year and see how many people have died of the flu,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists about 22,000 deaths from the flu in 2019. Since February, the coronavirus has killed more than 330,000 Americans. 

DeSteph tweeted out that he was “deeply saddened” by Chafin’s death and offered his “most sincere condolences to his wife, Lora Lee, the entire Chafin family and his many friends.”

The original lawsuit was filed in early December following the closure order, which was based on recommendations by the state’s health department and limited building access to elected officials and their staff. In the complaint, DeSteph said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Rules Committee Chair Mamie Locke were abusing their authority by limiting public access. 

In a Thursday hearing, DeSteph asked U.S. District Judge David Novak to enjoin the order and — according to partial transcripts made available by Desteph’s lawyer, Virginia Beach-based attorney Tim Anderson — Novak found the order was too broad even though the state had a “clearly compelling interest” in ordering the building closed. 

“It’s whether [the order] is narrowly tailored,” the Trump appointee said of the Democrat’s effort. “You haven’t done that here.” 

But instead of siding with DeSteph, Novak forced the two parties into arbitration. 

Results of that arbitration were not yet public Saturday afternoon, but an email obtained by a local political blog Blue Virginia suggests an agreement was made to “afford meeting space for members to meet with their constituents.” 

“Following the hearing in federal court yesterday it was determined that to ensure the health and safety of the constituents and Virginia, essential legislative staff and members the Pocahontas Building and the Capitol will remain closed for the 202(sic) session,” wrote Senator Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar. “The Clerk of the House and I will explore possibilities of space in close proximity to the Pocahontas Building or the Science Museum that would.” 

The email also stipulates how that meeting space will be handled, with reservations required, limiting attendance at any one time to a maximum of 10 people and requiring face masks or shields to be worn at all times. 

“Failure to follow these guidelines will result in loss of the meeting space privilege,” Schaar added. 

Neither Filler-Corn nor Locke responded to requests for comment on the agreement by press time. 

Virginia’s House of Delegates will meet virtually this year. The Senate will continue to meet in person in Richmond. Both houses gavel in for the 2021 session on January 13.

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