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Silver Line to Dulles opens and more Va. headlines

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The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• A University of Virginia student who witnessed Sunday’s shooting that left three football players dead said the alleged gunman mostly stayed to himself during the field trip to see a play in D.C. as part of an African American theater class. On the bus ride home to Charlottesville, she said, he sat alone in the back before opening fire.—Washington Post

• Athletics officials say they haven’t made a decision about whether the UVA football team will play again this season, but classes and other sports events are resuming today.—Richmond Times-Dispatch

• Metro’s long-awaited Silver Line to Dulles officially opened Tuesday, with numerous political leaders on hand to celebrate the occasion.—NBC4 Washington, Washington Post, DCist


• Lexington building officials overruled Washington & Lee’s plans to construct a wall in a university chapel to shield a statue of former school president and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The officials said the plan created safety concerns, but it’s come under fire from conservatives looking to maintain Lee’s presence.—Roanoke Times

• Carnival Cruise Line announced plans to double its number of ships taking off from Norfolk next year, with plans for “year-round cruising” by 2025.—Virginia Business

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Virginia House approves bill to boost transparency when judges get punished

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A proposal to make more information public when Virginia judges violate ethics rules passed the House of Delegates Friday on a bipartisan vote.

Currently, almost all records of the state’s Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission (JIRC) are kept strictly confidential unless they involve a proven breach serious enough to rise to the Supreme Court of Virginia for a formal censure or removal from the bench.

Each year, the seven-member commission files a report detailing how many complaints about judges it received. But those reports aren’t required to identify which judges were disciplined, what rules they broke, or their punishment. The bill sponsored by Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, would instruct the commission to include that information in future reports.

“Obviously, we appoint judges and keep tabs on how they’re doing,” Williams said as he presented his bill to a legislative committee.


The bill was approved by a 67-31 vote, with most Democrats in the no column but more than a dozen voting yes. The opposition appeared to be more about Williams’ conduct the day before the vote rather than the substance of his bill.

On Thursday, Williams refused to yield the floor to take a question about the JIRC bill from Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, bucking the tradition of engaging colleagues who may be seeking clarity, debate, or technical fixes to a piece of legislation.

“I just thought that we should include retired judges in the bill,” Mullin said in an interview Friday.

Retired Virginia judges are frequently called in to hear cases from which active judges have recused themselves. It’s a common practice in politically sensitive cases involving sitting legislators because the General Assembly has the power to hire, promote and fire active judges.

When told why Democrats had opposed a bill that received unanimous support in committee, Williams insisted his bill already covered retired judges.

“It actually includes anybody who has ever taken the judge’s oath and is going to sit on the bench,” Williams said.

Whichever interpretation is correct, the bill can be amended when it passes over to the state Senate. In the other chamber, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, has filed a similar JIRC transparency bill that has not yet been heard.

Complaints against judges rarely lead to formal punishment. In 2022, the commission received a total of 415 complaints, and 402 were dismissed. The vast majority of complaints were dismissed for either failing to fall under the commission’s jurisdiction or failing to allege a specific violation of the Canons of Judicial Conduct, the state’s official rulebook for judges. The commission determined a breach occurred in five cases, but all five of those cases were also dismissed, according to the body’s annual report.

Raymond F. Morrogh, commission counsel for JIRC, explained in an email last month that “some matters may not be of sufficient gravity to constitute the basis for a judge’s retirement, removal, or censure.”

“Where breaches of the Canons may be minor, it is conceivable that a matter may be resolved without resort to a formal hearing or the filing of a complaint in the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Virginia,” Morrogh said.

The Canons of Judicial Conduct deal with a wide array of issues, including judges’ fairness and impartiality, diligence about avoiding conflicts of interest, gifts and other favors, and the use of social media.

Most complaints against judges come from the general public, but some originate with lawyers, court employees, and other judges.

Williams’ bill would only require disclosure when a breach is substantiated and results in discipline, which would prevent frivolous or unproven accusations from being made public.

“It’s a very small universe of people,” said Robert Tracci, a senior attorney in the office of Attorney General Jason Miyares, referring to the number of judges likely to be identified under the proposed law. “And it does promote transparency in government.”

The attorney general’s office has called for more openness in the judicial discipline process, a proposal that seemed to take on new urgency because of its connection to Republican efforts to investigate the actions of a former chair of the Virginia Parole Board who’s now serving as a judge in Virginia Beach.

Bennett, whom Miyares has accused of abusing her Parole Board powers and breaking the law in a rush to release inmates in early 2020, was suspended from her role as a judge in the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in 2021. Media outlets’ efforts to figure out what she was disciplined for have been unsuccessful due to the secretive nature of the process.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch filed a legal petition seeking to have the disciplinary records unsealed. Still, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a split opinion last year that kept most of the documents confidential.

“From the start, Judge Bennett made clear that she did not want anyone but us to see the reason why JIRC had suspended her,” Supreme Court Justices D. Arthur Kelsey and Teresa M. Chafin wrote in a dissenting opinion. “The majority holds that Judge Bennett has a statutory right to keep that information secret and that the public has no constitutional right to break the seal of secrecy.”

In 2021, JIRC reported receiving 395 complaints. Only one was ruled a breach of judicial conduct and not dismissed.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Two inmates escape Southwest Virginia jail and more state headlines

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The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed a $1 million jury award to the family of a Virginia Beach man killed by police in 2019 during a mental health crisis. In a split opinion, the court ruled the shooting was justified.—Virginian-Pilot

• Authorities in Southwest Virginia were searching for two inmates who escaped from a local jail Thursday afternoon.—Bristol Herald Courier

• “Hot topics roil Virginia General Assembly but lead to few new laws.”—Washington Post


• At a union hall in Northern Virginia, President Joe Biden warned “MAGA Republicans” are threatening to send the country into economic “chaos.”—CNN

• A judge declined to dismiss misdemeanor charges brought against Loudoun County’s former school superintendent after finding the attorney general’s office, which empaneled a grand jury to investigate the school system, has “a broad swath of authority” to pursue criminal cases at the request of the governor.—Washington Post

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Bill increasing parental oversight of school library materials clears House but faces tough Senate

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A stack of books rests on top of a podium at the Virginia State Capitol building. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

Legislation giving parents more control over checkout procedures for books and materials in Virginia’s public school libraries passed the Republican-controlled House of Delegates Thursday.

But Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, who chairs the Senate’s public education subcommittee, said such a proposal is unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Earlier this month, the Senate Education and Health Committee rejected a different bill from Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, that would have directed school boards to adopt policies for school libraries that included mandatory written parental consent for students to check out materials that depict a child engaged in certain sexual acts.


“If that bill from the House is similar to Sen. DeSteph’s, it will likely receive the same votes,” said Hashmi.

Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, put forward the legislation that cleared the House Thursday and would require school principals or their designee to electronically catalog all printed and audiovisual materials in school libraries, identify whether the item contains graphic sexual content, and make the catalog available to parents.

It would also direct schools to permit parents to restrict their child’s access to any item that contains graphic sexual content and allow parents to request a graphic sexual content notation for any item.

School library materials have become a political flashpoint in Virginia in recent years, with parents increasingly attending school board meetings to challenge books in public schools. During his campaign, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin ran a television ad on the issue featuring a Fairfax County woman who, in 2013, objected to the inclusion of author Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Beloved” in her son’s Advanced Placement high school curriculum. Other challenges have occurred in Virginia Beach and Spotsylvania County.

Last year, Anderson, who is an attorney, and Republican congressional candidate Tommy Altman attempted to take legal action to prevent bookstores from selling two “obscene” books to minors without parental consent. The books were “Gender Queer,” an LGBTQ-themed memoir, and fantasy novel “A Court of Mist and Fury.” A Virginia Beach circuit court judge, ultimately dismissed the lawsuit.

Del. Tim Anderson speaking at a subcommittee meeting on Jan. 17, 2023. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)

 

Republicans have focused on the rights of parents following controversies over school policy changes, books, and school safety issues across Virginia. Meanwhile, Democrats have called for more resources in communities and schools and challenged Republican claims that “inherently divisive concepts” are being taught in schools.

During committee hearings on his legislation, DeSteph, who filed a similar bill last year, urged lawmakers to “protect our children’s innocence as long as humanly possible.”

While movies have ratings, and devices and televisions have parental controls, “our school libraries don’t,” he argued.

“I think it’s a sad state when our children are safer turning on the TV or radio than perusing their local school library,” he said.

Library workers, however, said the bill would place increased burdens on librarians. They also contended that school divisions have existing procedures that give parents “significant opportunity” to know and object to library books.

“What are these parents telling their children in the home?” asked Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, during the Jan. 12 committee hearing. “If parents are not taking responsibility in the house about what they’re saying to their children, relative to these kinds of materials, it isn’t going to mean anything if that child is going outside of that house and going to a library and accessing these materials.”

Hashmi questioned whether the state should require school librarians and staff to review every material instead of “giving the parents the responsibility of monitoring what their children are encountering.” She also pushed back against the notion that schools have pornographic material.

“I find that hard to believe,” Hashmi said. “Both of my girls went through public schools through Chesterfield County. I never had an incident where they encountered any material in a school library that I would object to. So I find it hard to believe that our schools are brimming with pornography.”

House bills headed for Senate

Besides the bills from Anderson and DeSteph, House Bill 1448 from Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Spotsylvania, would direct the Department of Education to recommend model policies for the “selection and removal of books and other audiovisual materials in public schools” by Nov. 1 to the General Assembly. That bill passed the House Thursday.

Anderson has said his legislation does not ban any books from school libraries.

“It simply says me in my household, I don’t want my children to have access to these books, and I have to know what they are before I can do that,” Anderson said Wednesday on the House floor.

Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, said she trusts educators and librarians to do their jobs.

“There’s no teacher, no librarian, no educator that I have met in a classroom that has ever not wanted the best for the children,” Convirs-Fowler said. “This is not our expertise, but rather extremism trying to play to their extreme MAGA base.”

 

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Three interesting bills of the week: Pound charter, stillborn child tax credit and private police

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The Virginia General Assembly convened for its 2023 session in Richmond Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

 

Hundreds of bills are filed for General Assembly consideration each year. In this occasional series, the Mercury takes a look at a few of the proposals that might not otherwise make headlines during the whirlwind legislative session. 

Senate Bill 1537: Restoring the town of Pound’s charter

This bill from Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, would repeal legislation passed in 2022 to revoke the charter for the town of Pound in Wise County.


Revoking the charter means Pound would legally cease to exist as a municipality, and the roughly 900 residents would therefore live in an unincorporated part of Wise County.

The original bill to revoke the charter came from House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, despite objections from residents. Pound made headlines in the fall of 2021 after business owners in the former coal town stopped paying taxes, every town employee either quit or was fired, and the police department was disbanded.

“Wise County is now providing water, sewer, and public safety for the citizens of Pound,” said Kilgore in a statement to WJHL last January. “My genuine hope is that this serves as a wake-up call.”

Kilgore’s bill had a provision that delayed the charter’s repeal until Nov. 1, 2023. Last spring, he told The Washington Post that if he felt Pound was getting back on track, he would be willing to ask the General Assembly to restore the charter.

If Pillion’s legislation fails, Pound will join the four other towns in Virginia to have their charter terminated. Most faced similar financial difficulties and population decline before their demise.

House Bill 1915: Stillborn child tax credit

HB 1915 from Del. Angelia Williams Graves, D-Norfolk, would establish a refundable income tax credit of $2,000 for individuals or married persons filing jointly after delivering a stillborn child.

The tax credit would be available starting this year until the end of 2027 and could only be claimed in the year in which the stillbirth occurred and if the child would have become a dependent of the taxpayer.

The bill defines a “stillborn child” as a child who suffered a spontaneous death, was at least 20 weeks, weighed at least 350 grams and whose death was not the result of an induced termination.

If the amount of credit exceeded the taxpayer’s tax liability for the year, the excess would be refunded to them.

House Bill 2448: Allowing private police to make arrests without a warrant

This legislation from Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton, would add private police officers employed by a private police department to the list of officers who can make arrests without a warrant in certain cases.

Virginia recognizes eight private police departments primarily employed by homeowners associations, hospitals, amusement parks, and resorts, Avoli said Wednesday. Language added to the bill defines a “private police officer” as someone exercising the powers and duties of the law on property controlled by their employer and on any contiguous property upon approval by the local chief of police or sheriff. These officers would be required to meet all training requirements for law enforcement officers but wouldn’t be considered state or local employees.

Private police officers could make arrests without a warrant for many reasons under Avoli’s bill, including if the officer has probable cause to suspect a person of having committed a felony or a misdemeanor like shoplifting or destruction of property.

Individuals employed as law enforcement officers by private corporations or entities used to be defined as special conservators of the peace with the authority to make arrests without a warrant. But legislation in 2015 redefined those employees as law enforcement officers while withholding that authority.

Lawmakers voted 4-3 along party lines to recommend approval of the bill during the House Subcommittee for Courts of Justice on Wednesday.

 

by Meghan McIntyre, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

 

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As Republicans tout Parole Board report, some Democrats see ‘a whole lot of nothing’

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House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, looks out over the chamber from the dais. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

 

The top Republican in the Virginia House of Delegates said Thursday that the GOP is considering “every possibility” in response to a new investigative report alleging systemic violations of law and state policy at the Virginia Parole Board under the watch of a former leader who’s now a sitting judge.

But House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the decision on whether the General Assembly should remove Virginia Beach Judge Adrianne Bennett from the bench will rest largely with the Democrat-controlled state Senate.

“We intend to ask them if they are as shocked by the findings as we are,” Gilbert told reporters Thursday on the House floor. “I know the Democratic leadership told us how silly the whole thing was then. I think the report reveals a number of things to the contrary.”


While announcing the release of a 69-page report outlining a series of missteps at the Parole Board in 2020, Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares on Wednesday raised the possibility of impeachment proceedings against Bennett, a judge with the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

In Bennett’s final weeks as chair of the Parole Board in early 2020, according to the attorney general’s report, the board she led repeatedly failed to properly notify victims and prosecutors of pending decisions to release violent offenders. The report alleges Bennett went as far as falsifying records and declaring some inmates eligible for parole even though courts had said they were not.

Miyares said his office concluded Bennett could have been charged with criminal offenses over the allegedly altered paperwork and overriding of court decisions. But because his investigation didn’t begin until 2022, after he and Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office, Miyares said the one-year statute of limitations for misdemeanor offenses had expired.

The General Assembly appoints all state and local judges, but the legislature almost never removes a judge over misconduct allegations. Gilbert said he believes judicial impeachment proceedings would begin in the House and then go to the Senate, but he acknowledged such a process would be fairly uncharted territory.

“We don’t have any modern precedent for it in Virginia,” Gilbert said.

Democratic General Assembly leaders had not formally weighed in on the report as of midday Thursday, nearly 24 hours after Miyares released it. In interviews, several Democratic senators said they had not yet read it and could not comment on its substance.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said he was skeptical of any suggestion a judge could be removed over conduct that occurred before they were serving on the bench. He also raised doubts about whether the misconduct of which Miyares is accusing Bennett without charging her should rise to the level of impeachment.

“To paraphrase Allen Iverson, we’re talking about a misdemeanor. Not a felony. A misdemeanor,” Petersen said, stressing that he was not up to speed on everything laid out in the report.

Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, whose call for a bipartisan legislative investigation into the Parole Board affair was not acted upon in 2021, said he was concerned by what he’s heard. But he, too, said he would need to read the report before commenting further.

“I really wish it had been done in a clearly nonpartisan way,” Bell said. “I think it would be more credible.”

Other Democrats seemed to have already concluded the report isn’t the bombshell the Republicans are portraying it as.

“All politics,” said House Minority Leader Don Scott, D-Portsmouth.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said it appears to him the headline should be “The Parole Board granted parole.” He said Miyares seems to be trying to “play racial politics with a basic government function.”

“I know that my conservative friends don’t like it when the Parole Board does its job,” said Surovell, who acknowledged he had not read the report. “And they continue to try to demonize the board for doing what we’ve charged it to do under the code.”

Surovell noted that the time period in question was the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when the state was trying to protect elderly inmates who were most at risk of dying from a new disease few understood.

However, former Public Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Brian Moran — whose duties included overseeing the Parole Board during Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration — told the attorney general’s office the board wasn’t given any special authority to release offenders because of the pandemic.

Instead, according to the report, Moran felt that authority should have rested with the Virginia Department of Corrections. At the time, the state prison agency had a more public and detailed plan for which offenders would be eligible for early release, emphasizing nonviolent offenders with less than a year left on their sentences.

“We weren’t going to do it randomly,” Moran is quoted as saying in the report. “I mean, that was insane.”

The General Assembly approved budget language dealing with the early release of prisoners during COVID-19. That language specifically excluded prisoners convicted of serious felonies like murder and rape from the emergency COVID-19 accommodations. The Northam administration also asked the Parole Board to expedite pending cases. Still, state watchdog reports stressed nothing about the COVID-19 emergency allowed the Parole Board to sidestep its own policies or state law.

On Thursday, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, called the report “a whole lot of nothing.”

“This idea that there’s probably a lot of criminal stuff that’s gone on, but we can’t charge any of it because the statute of limitations ran out? It’s a political tool. It’s more political theater,” Simon said. “I don’t think there’s any real there.”

Senate Republicans have called for Bennett to step down on her own accord rather than forcing the legislature to consider removing her. She has given no indication she plans to do so, and a lawyer representing her released a statement saying the report was an attempt to “vilify” a “dedicated public servant.”

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said the Miyares report offered a much more thorough look at the Parole Board’s problems than any of the various reports made public under Democratic leadership.

“It’s a well-documented investigation,” he said.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Attorney General Miyares joins the charge against contraband cell phones in prison

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On January 26, 2023, Attorney General Jason Miyares joined a coalition of 22 Attorneys General urging Congressional leaders to pass legislation giving states the authority to jam contraband cell phones.

“Contraband cell phones are already illegal and pose a significant threat to safety and security at correctional facilities – but the reality is that they exist and are prevalent in our prison system. They allow willing inmates a way to continue running and organizing criminal activity while incarcerated, threatening the public safety of Virginians,” said Attorney General Miyares. “I encourage Congress to swiftly pass legislation permitting states to implement a contraband cell phone jamming system to stop this illicit activity and protect our communities.”

Contraband cell phones are a nationwide problem, commonly allowing inmates to continue their criminal behavior, plan escapes, and intimidate witnesses from behind bars.

The letter details that “in Oklahoma, the white supremacist prison gang, the Universal Aryan Brotherhood, used contraband cell phones to help commit murder, money laundering, assault and robbery throughout the state. In Tennessee, a Memphis inmate used a contraband cell phone to orchestrate drug conspiracy deals by sending a FedEx package full of methamphetamine to his girlfriend. Then in Georgia, inmates used contraband cell phones to make scam calls and demand payment and even texted photos of bloodied inmates to the relatives demanding cash.”


Bills have been filed regarding this issue in previous sessions, H.R. 1954 in the 116th Congress and H.R. 8645, S. 4699 in the 117th Congress. But none of the bills have moved or received a vote.

Click here to read the letter.

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