ACLU Considering Offering Legal Representation to Gloucester Residents who Attempted to Remove Local Elected Officials from Office

Affiliate: ACLU of Virginia
December 16, 2008 12:00 am

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Civil liberties groups says right to petition government should be protected

Gloucester, VA – The ACLU of Virginia has informed representatives of a group of 41 Gloucester citizens that it will consider providing legal representation to them if a Circuit Court judge requires them to pay more than $100,000 in legal fees for filing a petition to remove from office four members of the county’s Board of Supervisors.

The ACLU met with three representatives of the group late last week.

“In our democracy, voters should not be afraid to challenge government officials when they appear to be misusing their office or neglecting their duties,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis. “In this case, it appears that reasonable citizens did their homework and then made a good faith effort to follow a rarely used and somewhat arcane law to have public officials removed. To then penalize those individuals by requiring them to pay the public officials’ attorneys’ fees could have a chilling effect on others who might consider doing the same in the future.”

“Given the context, we believe it is unlikely that the judge will find the actions of these citizens so frivolous that they will be penalized by having to pay legal costs,” added Willis, “but if that happens, the ACLU will conduct a thorough review of the case and consider offering legal assistance should the group decide to appeal.”

On November 19, a Circuit Court judge threw out the case against the Gloucester Board of Supervisors largely on a technicality, holding that the petitions for removal, which contained the names of more than 6,000 voters, had not been properly written. The petitions were filed under a law that allows citizens to ask a court to remove an elected official for “neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties when that neglect of duty, misuse of office or incompetence in the performance of duties has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office.”

A hearing on the attorneys’ fees issue is scheduled for tomorrow. The four members of the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors who were the subject of the petition have asked the court to order the citizens who filed the petition or the County government to pay their attorneys’ fees. Virginia’s law on removal of elected officials allows the court to order the government to pay such fees.

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