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Lawsuit To Open Legislative Offices Moved to Federal Court

Building
Virginia's legislators have offices in Downtown Richmond's Pocahontas Building. Democratic leaders announced the building will be closed to the public during the upcoming General Assembly session, leading to concerns over access. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A lawsuit to force Democratic legislative leaders to open member offices to the public during the General Assembly session will now be heard in federal court. 

A hearing in the case was scheduled for Monday morning in the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond but was moved to U.S. District Court. 

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Rules Committee Chair Mamie Locke announced earlier this month that the Pocahontas Building, where legislative offices are located, would be open only to credentialed legislative employees and current legislators. The decision followed advice from the Virginia Department of Health. 

Republican Sen. Bill DeSteph of Virginia Beach argues the policy limits the public’s access to their legislators and therefore violates both the U.S. and Virginia constitutions.

“Don’t shut down the legislative branch of government just because of COVID-19,” DeSteph said. “Figure out a way to do it in a safe manner.” 

He points to other government functions that found ways to reopen safely.

“Your courts are running. Your local and state governments are open. DMV is open. All of our social services and things like that are open,” DeSteph said. “So we need to have access to our legislators open as well.”

DeSteph said a “hotline” established to provide citizen access to legislators is unsatisfactory because existing state phone systems already receive complaints. 

COVID-19 cases in Virginia have spiked in the month of December. Positive tests rose by 3,294 on Sunday. 

Locke said in a statement that while she understands DeSteph’s concerns, legislative leaders are working to make sure the process is both transparent and safe. 

“To politicize COVID-19 even further than it already has been with masks and social distancing is a distraction from the work we need to do in Richmond and a distortion of the science and truth related to this health crisis,” Locke said. 

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who is defending Filler-Corn, Locke and other state capitol employees named in the lawsuit had the case transferred to federal court because it involves First Amendment protections. 

A hearing date has not been set in the federal case.