Virginia State Senator Sues Over Pandemic-Related Closure of Government Office Building

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

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A Virginia state Senator sued the state’s Democratic legislative leadership, clerks, and the state’s Division of Capitol Police Tuesday after the majority announced the closure of an office building to the public during the upcoming 2021 legislative session. 

State Senator Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, filed a complaint against House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, Senate Rules Committee Chair Mamie Locke, legislative clerks Susan Clarke Schaar and Suzette Denslow, and the Virginia Division of Capitol Police in Richmond City Circuit Court Tuesday. The second term senator claims the closure of the Pocahontas Building — a state government building that houses offices of members — blocks the public from interacting with legislators during the annual two-month lawmaking session. 

The building was closed to the public due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of over 285,000 Americans, including 4,200 in Virginia.

DeSteph claims the replacement system of phone and zoom meetings with the public violates their First Amendment rights.

“Public interest weighs in favor of the General Assembly office building being fully open during session as historically has occurred in every season in the history of the Commonwealth and is mandated by law,” the eight-page filing reads. 

The complaint was filed by Virginia Beach attorney Time Anderson, who is running for delegate in 2021. It asks for an injunction blocking the building’s closure. 

“Plaintiff, as an elected state Senator will suffer irreparable harm if an injunction is not granted, in that he will be denied vital in-person contact with constituents during,” the complaint states. 

A copy of a letter announcing the digital session, sent last week, was included with the filing and states “due to the rise in Covid numbers the Pocahontas Building will ONLY be open for credentialed legislative employees and current legislators.” 

The letter points to advice from the Virginia Department of Health, which suggested limited access to the cramped building and mandates only one person present in a legislator’s office at any given time.  

In a phone interview, DeSteph said lobbyists and citizens need in-person access to legislators, otherwise they’re kept in the dark.  

“When you shut down the system then you jam through what you want to get through,” he said. “And that’s just not fair.”

DeSteph also downplayed the coronavirus’s deadly impact. 

“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 CDC lists about 22,000 deaths from the flu in 2019. 

DeSteph could be in for an uphill battle at the courts. 

While it was unclear if Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, would have to defend the defendants, his office has won 13 challenges against Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s coronavirus lockdown measures since the outbreak forced statewide closures in March. 

“As we continue to see a surge of cases around the country, including certain areas of Virginia, we know that we must continue to adhere to these critical safety measures to keep Virginians healthy,” said Herring in a July statement

There’s also a record of an online session during the pandemic: A three month special session, called by Northam to address criminal justice reform and covid funding, ended early last month. The 100-member House session was held entirely online while the 40-member Senate met in person at a local, socially distanced museum hall.

The public was not allowed in the building with the senators and both chambers took public comment online or over the phone.

The 2021 Virginia General Assembly session will gavel in on Jan. 13, 2021. The House is expected to remain online while the Senate is expected to return to the museum hall. 

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