A Richmond judge on Friday ruled against a Democratic senator in a lawsuit seeking to block Republicans from taking control of the evenly divided Virginia Senate.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge Beverly W. Snukals declined to issue a temporary injunction to prevent Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R) from voting on certain matters.
The lieutenant governor has the power to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, which split evenly between Republicans and Democrats after the November elections. But Democrats contend that his voting authority does not extend to constitutional amendments, the budget, appointments or, perhaps most importantly, organizational matters. If Bolling has a say in how the Senate organizes, the GOP will have power over committee assignments.
With the start of the General Assembly session less than a month away, the ruling did little to settle the question of which party will control Richmond’s upper chamber.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Donald McEachin of Henrico, who brought the suit, said in an interview that he had not yet decided whether to appeal. In a written statement, McEachin encouraged Republicans to enter into a power-sharing agreement like the one crafted in the 1990s, when the Senate was evenly divided, and the lieutenant governor was a Democrat.
“I call on the Republicans to respect the will of the voters and past history,” McEachin said. “The senate is evenly divided, 20-20 so committees and responsibilities and power should be divided to reflect that even split, just as the Republicans said in 1996. Even then Governor [George] Allen spoke to the need for parity under these same circumstances.”
Despite the call to come together with a power-sharing deal, McEachin’s statement went on, in less-than-conciliatory terms, to raise the specter of continued litigation.
“The Senate Democratic caucus will continue to explore all its options, both legal and procedural, to resolve this issue in a way that reflects the actual outcome on election day, not an arrogant partisan power grab, totally to the benefit of one Party that does not reflect a majority of the Senate,” McEachin said.
In similarly blunt language, the Republican Party of Virginia indicated it had no desire to share power in the wake of the ruling.
“Court Throws out Democrat Sore Loser Suit,” read the headline on the party’s news release.
“If Senator McEachin is willing to file such a frivolous lawsuit, I can’t help but wonder if the next phase of this temper tantrum is for he and his Democrat colleagues to flee the state like their counterparts in Wisconsin did,” state GOP Chairman Pat Mullins said in the release.
Snukals turned down the injunction request in part because she deemed the timing premature, since the General Assembly is not yet in session, and Bolling has not voted on any procedural matters. The judge also said her intervention would violate the constitutional separation of government’s judicial and legislative branches.
“[T]his Court cannot intervene in the normal operating procedures of the Senate and enjoin one of the highest officials of the Commonwealth from performing his constitutional duties,” Snukals wrote.
“[T]he public interest would not be served by having a deadlocked Senate that is unable to agree on organization,” she wrote at another point.
McEachin, who was represented by Fairfax lawyer John A.C. Keith of Blankingship & Keith, noted that Snukals had not ruled on the question of whether Bolling has authority to vote on all Senate matters.
“While we didn’t get the injunction, she didn’t make a decision on the merits,” McEachin said in an interview. “This was all procedural. Nothing she said [indicates] the lieutenant governor can or cannot do anything. ... She said even though the lieutenant governor said that he’s going to take all those actions, he hasn’t done so yet and, therefore, the matter is not ripe.”
Bolling was represented in the case by the office of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II. Cuccinelli spokesman Brian J. Gottstein said the office would not have an immediate comment.
“We need to talk to the lieutenant governor first,” Gottstein said.