Governor signs bill protecting petitioners

Published 8:17 am Wednesday, June 10, 2009

RICHMOND—Gov. Tim Kaine has signed into law legislation to prevent courts from imposing attorney fees or other costs on citizens who have petitioned to remove a public official.

Kaine approved the legislation last week. It takes effect July 1.

The law was inspired by, but won’t help, the 40 Gloucester County residents who were assessed almost $80,000 in legal fees in connection with a petition drive to recall four members of the county’s Board of Supervisors.

Circuit Court Judge Westbrook J. Parker ruled that the citizens had abused the legal system by trying to remove the supervisors. In December, Parker ordered the citizens to pay the supervisors’ legal fees. A lawyer for the citizens has vowed to appeal the sanctions.

In the wake of the controversy, the General Assembly unanimously passed House Bill 2465, sponsored by Delegate Harvey B. Morgan, R-Gloucester.

It states that “any person who signs or circulates a petition for the removal of a public official will not be liable for any costs associated with the proceedings, including attorney fees or court costs.”

The bill also protects petitioners from sanctions ordered by a court.

After the legislative session, Kaine sought to amend the bill by allowing sanctions if a court finds “clear and convincing evidence that the petitioner acted with a malicious intent to harm the officer.”

On April 8, when the General Assembly reconvened for one day to consider Kaine’s vetoes and recommendations, legislators rejected the governor’s proposed change of HB 2465.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, voted against the governor’s amendment.

“I’m an elected official, and sometimes petitions are part of the process,” Petersen said.

He said he didn’t think “malicious intent” mattered when an individual signs a petition.

“People should be free from legal penalty,” Peterson said.

The Senate voted 7-32 against Kaine’s proposed change.

The House vote was 40-57 against the governor’s amendment.

After the vote, Gordon Hickey, Kaine’s press secretary, said the governor wasn’t bothered by the rejection of his recommendation.

In a telephone interview in April, Hickey dismissed allegations that Kaine’s position stemmed from a contribution made to his 2005 campaign by the law firm that represented the Gloucester supervisors.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the law firm of Sands Anderson Marks & Miller made a $5,000 donation to the Kaine for Governor campaign on Sept. 27, 2005.

The Richmond firm represented at least two of the Gloucester County supervisors.