This week, the Virginia Supreme Court took action on a request to move forward a case that has been stalled for a year and a half.
Since the spring of 2018, the Friends of the library have waited for the state Supreme Court to weigh in on their allegation that the Smyth County Board of Supervisors violated the commonwealth’s sunshine law when its members discussed dissolving the Smyth-Bland Regional Library behind closed doors. However, the court has been unable to move forward with the case as it’s missing the county’s response to the Friends’ appeal. The long delay is due to a special exemption that state law allows legislators who are attorneys to use when their General Assembly duties interfere with their legal work.
Normally, appellees have 25 days to file a response once an appeal is granted and filed. Once those documents are in place, the court will set a date for the matter to be argued.
Earlier this month, Marion attorney Paul Morrison II, who represents Beverly Cole, both individually and as president on behalf of the non-profit Friends of the Smyth-Bland Regional Library, filed a motion asking the court to either compel the county to produce that response or decide the case without it.
However, Jeff Campbell, who serves as county attorney, also is an elected member of the Virginia General Assembly’s House of Delegates. On April 20, 2018, he filed a motion seeking a time extension because the General Assembly entered a Special Session to address a budget debate.
On May 17, 2018, the court gave the appellees until 30 days after the 2018 special session adjourned to respond to the appeal.
Morrison’s recent motion notes that, according to the House of Delegates’ clerk, that April 2018 and a later second special session “technically remains ongoing” and “over 500 days have elapsed.”
Yet, Morrison noted in his motion that Campbell has been at work in the court system, “appearing regularly as counsel of record in cases he chooses to pursue.” Using records from the state Supreme Court, Morrison noted in his documentation that, from Aug. 1, 2018 until Aug. 1, 2019, Campbell has appeared in 186 cases in Smyth County courts.
Morrison argued that as the county’s counsel, Campbell “has had more than adequate time to fully address this appeal.”
He also argued that the “appellants are prejudiced by the substantial delay…, as the Smyth County Board of Supervisors continues to enter into closed session at nearly every meeting utilizing the same insufficient motions as those complained of in this appeal.”
At its essence, Morrison said the case claims that the supervisors “made illegal motions to hold closed door meetings which excluded the public, and that during those illegally convened meetings, the Board discussed dissolving the Smyth-Bland Regional Library. We will continue to pursue this appeal in an effort to ensure that the important decisions made by the Board are open and transparent for all citizens.”
On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court ordered that the appellants’ motion be docketed for oral argument on Dec. 3. The court also set specific deadlines this month for both sides of the case to file letter briefs and responses.
Court documents show that other continuances linked to Campbell’s role as a legislator have brought objections.
One, a misdemeanor domestic assault appeal in Smyth’s Circuit Court, has been delayed nine times. Campbell began representing the defendant on June 22, 2018, according to court records. The appeal is now scheduled for trial on Jan. 15, 2020. After an initial motion to continue the case shortly after he was hired, Campbell also filed motions for continuance on Sept. 10, 2018, Nov. 9, 2018, Dec. 16, 2018, March 11, 2019, May 20, 2019, and Oct. 1, 2019, all citing Code Section 30.5.
The orders for continuance include a place for a representative of the commonwealth attorney’s office to sign that they have “seen and agreed” to the extension.
Initially, the prosecutor, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Brendan Roche, marked out “and agreed.” By the March 11 request, he was marking out “agreed” and writing in “objected.” In later documents, Roche wrote, “Seen and objected to.”
Code Section 30.5, which applies not just to General Assembly sessions but also meetings of any legislature-created commission, council, committee or subcommittee, doesn’t make it easy on judges to deny such motions. It offers a strict rebuke of any court that doesn’t grant such continuances, saying, “The failure of any court, commission or other tribunal to allow such continuance when requested… shall constitute reversible error.”