Court rules against lawsuit seeking to block GOP control of Va. Senate

December 16, 2011

A Richmond judge on Friday ruled against a Democratic state 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 the temporary injunction but did not rule on the underlying lawsuit, which seeks a declaratory judgment that the lieutenant governor is not entitled to vote on certain matters.

The lieutenant governor has the power to cast tiebreaking 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 organizational matters. If Lt. Gov. Bill 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 the upper chamber in Richmond.

Democratic Caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin (Richmond), who brought the suit, said Friday he had not decided on whether to appeal. In a statement, he encouraged Republicans to enter into a power-sharing agreement that would be similar to 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 also raised the specter of continued litigation.

‘Partisan power grab’

“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 that it had no desire to share power in the wake of the ruling.

“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 a news release, referring to a February incident in which a group of Wisconsin state Senate Democrats left the state to halt a vote on a controversial bill in the Republican-controlled chamber.

Constitutional issues

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 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.

Bolling and other Republicans urged McEachin to drop the suit.

“Hopefully, Senator McEachin and the Democrats will accept the court’s decision, forgo further unnecessary litigation and join us in preparing for the upcoming session and focusing on the important issues facing Virginia families,” Bolling said in a statement.

McEachin 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. . . .

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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