BUCKINGHAM COUNTY, Va. - The little front porch seemed like a pulpit as the Rev. William Barber outlined a path to redemption for Virginia's troubled governor, Ralph Northam.
"What he should do more than resign is he should get the resolve to be serious and take on this project," Barber said, looking toward the nearby stand of pine trees where Dominion Energy plans to build a major natural-gas pipeline pumping station in the middle of a historic black community. "He could lead the nation. He could lead the South."
Next to the civil rights leader, another high-profile activist, former Vice President Al Gore, nodded in agreement. The pair toured the rural community of Union Hill this week to draw attention to the case against the pumping station, which is part of the $7.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Northam's shame over a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page could be put to positive use, said Gore, a fellow Democrat. "If it resulted in Governor Northam saying, 'I've seen the light, I'm going to change the policy,' then God intends it for good," he said.
That would be a dramatic step for the governor - Dominion is one of his biggest donors and the most powerful corporation in the state.
This is Northam's place now in the national dialogue about race. As long as he promises to work for racial reconciliation instead of heeding calls to resign, he will face mounting pressure on a number of fronts to put actions behind his words.
He's off to a rocky start. The governor abandoned plans to start a "reconciliation tour" Thursday at Virginia Union University after the student body president asked him to reschedule. Some on campus felt Northam's presence would distract from a commemoration of the "Richmond 34," students arrested in 1960 for trying to desegregate a lunch counter. Instead, Northam invited members of the group to visit him Friday at the Executive Mansion.
Black lawmakers were disappointed last week after Northam retreated on calls for expanding low-income tax relief, questioning whether he's too politically wounded to bargain with Republicans. Northam responded by seeking more state money for schools to serve at-risk students, and to prevent evictions of low-income residents.
With the annual General Assembly session in its final week, GOP leaders have signaled willingness to consider the requests. Budget conferees have until Saturday to reach a decision.
The task Northam has set for himself - addressing systemic inequities that deprive African-Americans of equal opportunity - is enormous. Environmental advocates say he has a chance to make a splash with the Union Hill project, which won a key state air permit in January despite years of objections from black and environmental leaders.
Northam has declined to take a position on the pipeline or the pumping station, saying he trusts the state permitting process to act in Virginia's best interest. But he has drawn ire for appearing to interfere in that process, replacing two pollution-board members last year as they were preparing to vote on the Union Hill permit.
Northam's spokeswoman did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the statements from Barber and Gore. Earlier in the week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Northam addressed the compressor project in a written statement, defending the permitting process but calling on Dominion to "listen and respond to the concerns of this important historic community."
With the rest of the 600-mile pipeline hung up on delays and court challenges, opponents say Northam should step in on behalf of the residents of this rural community, which was settled by free blacks and former slaves just after the Civil War.
"It's a horrible injustice," Gore said in an interview, "and it should be stopped."
He and Barber - who heads the Repairers of the Breach activist group and has restarted the national Poor People's Campaign founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - met with residents at Union Grove Baptist Church on Tuesday night, visited the home near the pumping station site and spoke to a regional audience of about 1,100 cheering people at the local middle school.
While most state and national Democrats have called on Northam to resign, Gore and Barber declined to directly address the question.
Northam initially took responsibility for the yearbook photo, which shows one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes, but he later said he's certain it was not him in the picture. He admitted to darkening his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest later that year.
Barber said in an interview that too much public attention has been paid to blackface and other forms of cultural racism.
"Deal with the systemic racism. Voting rights. Economic inequality," Barber said. "You want to deal with racism - stop getting all excited over cultural things, and let's get down to the real issue about racism."
He and Gore, who have partnered to work on several environmental issues, said a decision by Northam to oppose the Union Hill pipeline project would be particularly powerful because it would defy Dominion. The utility has donated more than $200,000 to Northam over the years and is a major benefactor of Virginia politicians in both parties.
In an effort to build goodwill, Dominion has pledged more than $5 million to Union Hill residents to build a community center, purchase an ambulance and make other improvements. The offer has sparked divisions, though, with some residents saying it shows good faith and others calling it bribery.
Those divisions illustrate the challenge facing Northam as he pursues something as complicated and nuanced as reconciliation. Barber cautioned that pandering won't cut it and slammed Dominion's offer to help Union Hill as part of a systemic problem that needs to be fixed.
At the church, Barber approached former state Agriculture Secretary Basil Gooden, who grew up nearby, and chastised him for hiring on as a Dominion consultant to work with the community.
"You ought to be ashamed, being black and being on the side of environmental racism," Barber told him. "Your soul ain't worth that kind of money."
Gooden followed Barber out the door, saying he believes the pumping station is inevitable; he said he took the position with Dominion to help the community deal with it. But Barber brushed him off.
Northam's status with African-Americans is a political issue for Democrats, who have been counting on support from black voters in their quest to take back majorities in the House of Delegates and state Senate in elections this fall.
The governor has been meeting with civil rights leaders and black lawmakers as he formulates his path forward. Barber said he has not yet spoken with Northam but would like to.
If Northam wants support, the civil rights leader said, he needs to do more than promise to listen. Standing high on the front porch of Ella Rose, 75, whose home is adjacent to the 68-acre site for the natural-gas pumping station, Barber said Northam needs to pay more attention to residents and less to big donors like Dominion.
"All the stuff that he has said - wanting forgiveness, wanting this, wanting to apologize - is suspect until he faces these kinds of systemic problems," Barber said.
Gore said Northam could start by addressing the pipeline and the concerns of residents in Union Hill.
If he did, Barber said, "we'd stand right there with him." He cited the biblical story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who gave half of his possessions to the poor. "(Jesus) said if you really want to show you mean it, restore to the people what you've taken from them," Barber said.
"Pay the debts back," Gore agreed, and Barber repeated: "Pay the debts back."
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Constitution's prohibition on excessive fines applies to state and local governments, limiting their abilities to impose financial penalties and seize property.
The decision delighted critics of civil asset forfeiture, who welcomed it as a new weapon in their war against what's been labeled "policing for profit" - the practice of seizing cash, cars and other property from those convicted, or even suspected, of committing a crime.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on her second day back on the bench after undergoing cancer surgery in December, announced the court's decision, saying the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause protects against government retribution at all levels.
"For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties," Ginsburg wrote. "Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. . . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence."
Groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce warned the Supreme Court of abuses, with the chamber touting a national study that found "60 percent of the 1,400 municipal and county agencies surveyed across the country relied on forfeiture profits as a 'necessary' part of their budget.' "
The case at the court involved Tyson Timbs of Marion, Indiana, who had his $42,000 Land Rover SUV seized after his arrest for selling a couple hundred dollars' worth of heroin. Timbs has sued to get it back, and while Wednesday's decision did not dictate that outcome, it gave him a new day in court.
"Increasingly, our justice system has come to rely on fines, fees and forfeitures to fund law enforcement agencies rather than having to answer to elected officials for their budgets," said Scott Bullock, the president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice, which represented Timbs. "This is not just an ominous trend; it is a dangerous one."
The ACLU's brief said that in 2017, 10 million people owed more than $50 billion in criminal fines, fees, and forfeitures. It described how a $100 ticket for a red-light violation in California carried an additional $390 in fees, and how New Jersey's fine of $100 for marijuana possession could lead to more than $1,000 penalty for a poor person represented by a public defender.
Some justices, too, had become worried about the state and local efforts.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in a recent opinion that civil forfeitures have "become widespread and highly profitable."
"This system - where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use - has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses," Thomas wrote, referring to reporting by the New Yorker, and an investigative series in The Washington Post that chronicled how aggressive policing tactics resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars collected from motorists not charged with crimes.
The issue has been divisive at the federal level as well. Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder restricted the Department of Justice's reliance on civil asset forfeitures, but Republican Jeff Sessions championed the program. A bipartisan group of senators objected to the Sessions initiative.
But those issues were largely missing in Ginsburg's crisp nine-page opinion. The issue, Institute of Justice Lawyer Wesley Hottot said at oral argument in the case, was a simple matter of "constitutional housekeeping."
The Constitution's Bill of Rights protects against actions of the federal government. But the Supreme Court over time has applied it to state and local governments under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment. In 2010, for instance, the court held that the Second Amendment applied to state and local government laws on gun control.
The Eighth Amendment states: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." Two of those commands - regarding bail and cruel and unusual punishments - have been deemed to apply to state and local governments. But until now, the ban on excessive fines had not.
The Indiana Supreme Court was among a handful of state high courts that had said that part of the Eighth Amendment did not apply to state actions.
Timbs provided the test case. The factory worker said in an interview before the Supreme Court hearing that he became reliant on painkillers after a foot injury. He moved from Ohio to Marion, Indiana, to live with his aunt and to try to make a fresh start.
With money he received from a life insurance policy after his father's death, Timbs bought the Land Rover. "The rest of the money I spent on drugs," he said. When that ran out, he undertook the small-time heroin dealing.
After he pleaded guilty to selling to an undercover agent, Timbs was sentenced to home detention, probation and a court-supervised treatment program for addiction.
Indiana then hired a private law firm to file a lawsuit forcing Timbs to forfeit the car, under a state law that allows seizure of vehicles used "to facilitate violation of a criminal statute."
Timbs sued to get the car back, and a judge agreed, citing the Excessive Fines Clause and saying "forfeiture of the Land Rover . . . was grossly disproportionate to the gravity" of the crime. He noted the maximum monetary penalty for Timbs's crime was $10,000.
But the Indiana Supreme Court held that the excessive-fines clause did not apply to the states. Citing Indiana's status as "a sovereign state within our federal system," the court said it would not "impose federal obligations on the state that the federal government itself has not mandated."
Three other states - Michigan, Mississippi and Montana - also take that position.
The Supreme Court's opinion Wednesday does not take a position on whether Indiana's seizure of the Land Rover was excessive. It holds only that the Indiana Supreme Court was wrong to say that the Eighth Amendment did not apply.
But Ginsburg noted the lower court's finding that the value of Timbs' vehicle was "more than four times the maximum $10,000 monetary fine assessable against him for his drug conviction."
Ginsburg's opinion said that the Excessive Fine Clause is incorporated to apply to state and local government under the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause, the traditional way the court makes such decisions. Justices Thomas and Neil Gorsuch agreed with the outcome, but said they would have relied on a different part of the 14th Amendment.
The case is Timbs v. Indiana.