by James C. Sherlock
It is an urgent legal necessity to revise the Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Services and Disaster Law of 2000. That law has never been tested in court. It has many flaws that both hinder good governance in Virginia and will be exposed as potentially unconstitutional in any judicial review.
1. The law gives the governor authority to declare a state of emergency and thus activate his or her emergency powers without any review or authority to repeal the declaration by the General Assembly, even ex post facto. That gives the authority to the governor to grant himself the powers to both create offenses by decree and to police them.
2. The law gave the General Assembly no role in emergency response, even if it is in regular session and/or the emergency lasts for a very long time.
3. 1. and 2. provide clear challenges to the Guarantee Clause (Article IV, Section 4) of the U.S. Constitutio:. “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government.”
4. The law did not provide for a General Assembly role in confirming or rejecting executive orders that restrict constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Such restrictions have far stronger chance of being upheld in state and federal courts if the General Assembly plays a role, at least ex post facto, to confirm, modify or reject such an order.
5. The law puts no reasonable time limits on either the state of emergency itself or the executive orders resulting from the emergency. Under the current law both the state of emergency and executive orders, absent action by the governor that proclaimed both, expire on June 30, 2021, at which point he can renew them.
6. The law does not make provisions to put the General Assembly in position to participate in emergency response in a streamlined, more time sensitive manner and efficient manner.
7. All of these mistakes perhaps can be shown to have resulted from the consideration of only short duration disasters such as the ones listed in the law, not a pandemic of the duration of the one we are facing.
With the arrival of a pandemic, both sides of the aisles in both houses of the General Assembly have realized that law both makes them irrelevant and makes the law itself a prime target for judicial reversal. It is time to change the law. The August special session is the venue.