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Edwards v. Vesilind

Supreme Court of Virginia

September 15, 2016



         PRESENT: All the Justices



         This appeal arises from a civil contempt order entered after the Division of Legislative Services ("DLS") and several Members of the General Assembly, invoking legislative privilege, refused to comply with a production order in a matter pending before the circuit court. The court held that legislative privilege, as set forth in the Speech or Debate Clause of Article IV, Section 9 of the Constitution of Virginia ("the Clause"), [1] does not extend to DLS or to documents and communications between Members of the General Assembly and consultants, DLS, or other third parties. For the reasons stated below, we conclude that the court abused its discretion by holding the appellants in contempt. With respect to the appellants in this case, the production order of February 16, 2016 and the provisions of the order of April 14, 2016 holding appellants in civil contempt will be vacated in part.

         On appeal we are confined to the record developed in the court below and the assignments of error granted. Of necessity, our resolution of this case addresses legal principles implicated by the controversy but may not resolve specific application of these principles because the record is not fully developed.


         On September 14, 2015, plaintiff-appellees Rima Ford Vesilind, Arelia Langhorne, Sharon Simkin, Sandra D. Bowen, Robert S. Ukrop, Vivian Dale Swanson, H.D. Fiedler, Jessica Bennett, Eric E. Amarteis, Gregory Harrison, Michael Zaner, Patrick M. Condray, Sean Sullivan Kumar, and Dianne Blais (collectively, "the appellees") brought an action in the circuit court against the Virginia State Board of Elections, the Department of Elections, and various officers in their official capacities. The appellees alleged that House of Delegates districts 13, 22, 48, 72, and 88, and Senate districts 19, 21, 28, 29, 30, and 37 were not sufficiently contiguous, compact, and as nearly equal in population as practical, thereby violating Article II, Section 6 of the Constitution of Virginia. The appellees seek a declaration that these eleven districts are unconstitutional, seek to enjoin the use of the current district map in future elections, and seek other equitable relief as necessary.[2]

         In November 2015, subpoenas duces tecum were served upon, as relevant to this appeal, Virginia Senators John Edwards, Ralph Smith, Richard Saslaw, Charles Colgan, David Marsden, and George Barker (collectively, "the Virginia Senators")[3] and DLS, demanding production of 17 categories of documents and communications, such as those relating to:

• compactness, total population, contiguity, total number of splits, communities of interest, and core retention of the challenged districts and adjacent districts
• development and prioritization of the criteria used to draft and modify the districts
• Senators' partisan considerations affecting the shape or composition of the districts or adjacent districts, including impact on incumbents
• the establishment and implementation of the 2001 redistricting criteria
• preclearance through the Virginia Attorney General's Office
• communications from the public concerning compactness
• map files and plans proposed, considered, or adopted, and
• any official or unofficial meeting of the General Assembly.

         The DLS subpoena also requests "All documents consisting of electronic map files for redistricting plans which were used for any election for the House . . . or Senate of Virginia from 1980 to the present." The subpoenas seek production of all "documents or communications in your possession, custody or control, including items in the possession, custody or control of your agents, employees or attorneys."

         The Virginia Senators and DLS filed motions to quash, claiming legislative privilege protected disclosure of the documents and communications sought. Following the submission of briefs and oral argument, the circuit court issued a letter opinion defining the scope of legislative privilege.

         Relying on Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606 (1972), the circuit court stated that "legislative privilege applies absolutely to purely internal legislative communications solely among legislators, and between legislators and legislative staff." However, adopting the analysis in Page v. Virginia State Board of Elections, 15 F.Supp.3d 657, 664 (E.D. Va. 2014), the court then explained that it

declines to extend the privilege beyond that core definition [protecting communications solely between legislators and other legislators or legislators and their staff] and finds that the individuals included within the legislative privilege are only the legislators and their legislative assistants and/or aides who are employed and paid by the individual legislator, a legislative committee, or the legislature as a whole.

         The court required the Virginia Senators to answer all discovery at issue, although "such responses shall be limited and protected by the scope of legislative privilege as defined [in the letter opinion]."

         As to DLS, the circuit court ruled that it

is a legislative agency that serves legislators individually and collectively, but is not a legislator, a legislative committee, or the legislature as a whole, and is not a paid employee of the above. Therefore, DLS does not fall within the scope of this Court's definition of the legislative privilege and . . . shall answer the discovery propounded herein. Certainly, this includes all communications between DLS and legislators or their aides or staff, as well as documents or communications among DLS staff or between DLS staff and others.

         Accordingly, on February 16, 2016, the circuit court entered an order denying the Virginia Senators' motion to quash and requiring that they answer discovery requests "limited and protected by the scope of the legislative privilege defined in the letter opinion." The court also denied the motion to quash as to DLS, directing that it answer all discovery requests because DLS falls outside the scope of legislative privilege.[4] In the same order, the court held that two political consultants were third parties and did not fall within the scope of the privilege.

         The Virginia Senators and DLS moved the circuit court to certify an interlocutory appeal. The court denied the certification request because the appellees' opposition prevented the parties from meeting the mutuality requirement of Code § 8.01-670.1. In the alternative, the Virginia Senators and DLS asked to be held in contempt in order to produce an appealable order. The appellees did not oppose this request. On April 14, 2016, the court held the Virginia Senators and DLS in contempt, assessing a fine of $100.00 per party per day. The circuit court stayed the collection of the fines imposed during the pendency of this appeal.

         Before the Court of Appeals considered this matter, the parties filed a joint motion for certification to transfer the proceedings to this Court pursuant to Code § 17.1-409 (providing for expedited appeals when the case is of "such imperative public importance as to justify the deviation from normal appellate practice and to require prompt decision in the Supreme Court"). This Court granted the motion and set oral argument for special session on July 19, 2016.


         In its sole assignment of error, DLS contends that:

1. The Circuit Court erred in holding that legislative work product and other materials concerning core legislative acts held in the custody of DLS, including communications between Virginia legislators and their staff, on the one hand, and DLS and its staff, on the other, are categorically excluded from the protections afforded in Virginia's Speech or Debate Clause.

         The Virginia Senators raise three assignments of error, contending that:

1. The circuit court erred as a matter of law when it found the Virginia Senators in contempt of court because the court's underlying opinion and order held that the Speech or Debate Clause in Virginia's Constitution does not protect communications between the Virginia Senators and their staff ...

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