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Are You Sure You Really Want to Sign that Petition?

The Supreme Court of Virginia recently accepted a Petition for Appeal by forty citizens of Gloucester County who were hit with sanctions for circulating a petition for signatures and filing the petition with the Circuit Court for Gloucester County to have some members of the Board of Supervisors removed by the Circuit Court.  These citizens circulated the petition per § 24.2-233 of the Code of Virginia, gaining over six thousand signatures, after a grand jury indictment of certain members of the Board of Supervisors.  After appointment of a special prosecutor, the trial court nonsuited the petition proceedings, ordered Gloucester County to pay for the legal fees incurred by the Board of Supervisors, and then imposed two thousand dollar sanctions on each of the forty citizens who circulated the petition. 

According to the facts set forth in the Petition for Appeal, two new members were elected to the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors in 2007, providing one voting bloc with a new majority of votes.  Among other things, upon being sworn in the members of this new controlling voting block promptly announced the termination of the then current County Administrator and the County Attorney.  This was apparently not discussed with the minority Board members, or announced to the public prior to their action to do so.  Upon learning this, the Commonwealth's Attorney for the county began an investigation and a grand jury was ultimately convened, which returned criminal indictments for the four Board members.

Generally speaking, § 24.2-233 provides a procedural avenue for citizens to have elected officials removed from office by the local circuit court for misuse of public office.  However, until July 1 of this year, § 24.2-238 did not have a Subsection B, which now explicitly prohibits the imposition of the aforementioned sanctions.  While there are several other arguments that have been made why sanctions should not be imposed, the Petition for Appeal begs the general question whether the judicial branch may impose sanctions on citizens who organize and petition the government where sanctions are not expressly statutorily prohibited.  What does Virginia want to discourage more: arguably wasteful and distasteful mass petitioning movements or the judicial branch's authority to suppress such petitions?