RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate has spent $180,000 in taxpayer dollars on a court battle over whether state election maps illegally protect incumbents from primary challenges, according to documents obtained under the state’s public records law by an advocacy group.
The lawsuit, funded by a redistricting reform group, argues that 11 state Senate districts violate the constitutional requirement that districts be “compact.”
Instead, many legislative districts zigzag across Virginia in odd shapes in an effort to capture the precise mix of voters to give an incumbent lawmaker the best chance for reelection, critics say.
As part of the lawsuit, some lawmakers are trying to keep secret emails about the 2011 redistricting process sought by lawyers for OneVirginia2021, a nonprofit which says it wants to take the politics out of the process of drawing district boundaries.
The lawsuit has taken unexpected turns, raising questions about conflict of interest and what politicians can and cannot hide from judicial scrutiny.
A Richmond Circuit Court judge earlier this month found four Senate Democrats and two former senators in contempt of court for refusing to turn over correspondence.
The lawmakers currently serving are Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) and Sens. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax) and John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke). The former senators are Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) and Ralph Smith (R-Roanke.)
Attorneys for the lawmakers said legislative privilege provided by the state constitution protects their correspondence from court review. A judge disagreed and fined the six lawmakers $100 each per day to be paid by taxpayers if the issue is ultimately decided against them.
The lawyers asked the judge to hold the lawmakers in contempt as a strategy to quickly elevate the case to the state Supreme Court and get a definitive ruling about what documents they can keep secret from court review.
“You don’t want to set precedent that people can routinely subpoena your emails,” Marsden said. “I don’t think anyone wants to expose constituent emails to that process. It’s almost like a doctor-patient relationship.”
Lawmakers are shielded under the state Freedom of Information Act from having to disclose their correspondence with third parties, such as constituents and consultants, under a widely cited exception for “working papers and correspondence.”
Another senator whose documents were subpoenaed, Richard H. Stuart (R-Stafford), said he has complied with the order.
“I’m a lawyer, and I’m never going to refuse a court order,” he said. “You just don’t do that. Number two, I’m a public servant and I’m doing the public’s work. Number three, I believe in transparency.”
Stuart and other Republican lawmakers who have voted for nonpartisan redistricting reform bills find themselves embroiled in the lawsuit, which challenges districts drawn by Democrats who controlled the Senate during the latest round of redistricting.
According to invoices addressed to Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City County) the Senate hired the firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, where one of their own, Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Fauquier), is managing partner.
The invoices were obtained through a public records request by the left-leaning government watchdog group, Progress Virginia, which provided them to The Washington Post. They showed Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky billed the state eight times from September to February, for a total cost of $179,802.
Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, said hiring Vogel’s firm poses a conflict of interest.
“It is clearly her business and presumably she is profiting from this contract,” Scholl said. “As someone who wants to be Virginia’s next lieutenant governor, I wonder how she justifies hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money being awarded to her law firm.”
Norment defended the hiring of Vogel’s firm, calling it one of a few firms qualified to represent the state in election and redistricting law.
“We are fortunate to be represented by Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, a nationally recognized and respected firm specializing in these complicated cases. They are rendering exceptional professional service,” he said in a statement.
Vogel, a candidate for lieutenant governor who represented President George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential recount in Florida, said her firm is saving taxpayers money “because we care extra!”
“No one cares more about protecting the institution and the privilege that allows [the] Senate to function — hence my firm [is] doing the work and effort at huge discount to the Commonwealth,” she wrote in a text message.
Vogel and her firm did not respond to questions about the amount of the discount.