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Va. attorney general: Legislature may hold ‘virtual’ meetings during emergencies

Virginia’s House of Delegates met under a canopy outside the state Capitol in April as a precaution against the novel coronavirus.
Virginia’s House of Delegates met under a canopy outside the state Capitol in April as a precaution against the novel coronavirus. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring has found that the General Assembly has the authority to meet electronically during a time of emergency such as the novel coronavirus crisis.

Herring (D) issued an opinion Thursday morning at the request of House Speaker Eileen ­Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax), finding that language in the state budget permits the House of Delegates and the state Senate to convene remotely because Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has declared a state of emergency.

Filler-Corn attempted to get the House to vote for remote meetings when the legislature convened last month, but Republican opposition prevented her from getting the two-thirds majority required for a rule change.

The General Assembly had come to Richmond to review any vetoes or amendments issued by Northam (D) to legislation passed during this year’s regular session, which adjourned March 12.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the House convened outside under a canopy and the Senate met in a large room at a science museum, with members wearing masks and seated far apart.

Filler-Corn had suggested it would be safer to adjourn and reconvene online, but House Republican leaders questioned whether technology was reliable enough to conduct a fair and open meeting. Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), the House minority leader, pointed out that even moving the session outdoors caused several technical glitches that led to delays while the electronic voting system was fixed.

Gilbert also noted that some delegates live in rural areas where broadband service is not reliable, and that some are not comfortable with technology.

Democrats who lead the state Senate also said they were not interested in meeting remotely.

But Filler-Corn said she had consulted with health experts and that an electronic session was the best way to ensure business could be conducted without fear of infection for the 140 lawmakers, their staffs and the public.

Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act generally prohibits public bodies from holding meetings online. But the budget language that Herring cited Thursday was included in amendments sent over this year by Northam and passed during last month’s reconvened session.

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, any public body, including any state, local, regional, or regulatory body, or a governing board . . . may meet by electronic communication means without a quorum of the public body or any member of the governing board physically assembled at one location when the Governor has declared a state of emergency,” the budget language says.

Virginia General Assembly returns for a strange session, altered by coronavirus

Filler-Corn asked Herring for an opinion on whether that created an exception to the Freedom of Information Act. Herring replied that the General Assembly qualifies as a “public body,” and that it can meet electronically if it adheres to “important principles of open government and transparency.”

Filler-Corn praised Herring’s ruling. “This is the safest way to conduct the people’s business,” she said in an interview.

Northam has said he plans to call a special session of the General Assembly sometime this summer to address the budgetary impact of the pandemic, which is expected to carry costs and revenue shortfalls of about $3 billion over the rest of the fiscal year and the next two years.

If the state of emergency is still in place, Filler-Corn said she will consider conducting the House session online. “It’s quite clear that we can do so,” she said.

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