The Case Against Norment: Suggestive but Not Yet Persuasive

In 2000, Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-Williamsburg, patroned a bill (SB 453) that instituted procedural protections for landowners in condemnation cases. As summarized by Roanoke attorney David Nixon, the bill allowed landowners to receive a copy of property appraisals prepared for the condemnors, and changed the decision makers in disputes from commissioners to juries. In other words, Norment sided with landowners over government and utilities.

Five years later, the U.S. Supreme Court made its infamous “Kelo” ruling, which broadened the power of local government to condemn land for public purposes, including such for nebulous justifications as “economic development” and increasing the tax base. Did Norment once again take up the cause for landowners? No, says Nixon, the Williamsburg legislator used his influence in the Senate Courts of Justice committee to dilute or kill legislation that would have narrowed the application of eminent domain in Virginia. Indeed, Norment went so far as to introduce a bill, SB 1297, that tilted the procedural playing field in the interests of condemnors.

What could account for the difference between the “old” Norment and the “new” Norment? Nixon traces his change of heart to his connections to the energy company Dominion and his employment with Kaufman and Canoles, the leading law firm in Hampton Roads. He cites the fact that Norment owns “significant holdings” in Dominion stock and that he accepted an invitation to a hunting trip to Georgia, valued at $1,722, as a gift from Dominion in 2001. Furthermore, states Nixon, Norment works as a rainmaker for Kaufman and Canoles, a firm that litigates for local government and government entities on such issues as “unlawful taking of private property,” “condemnation,” and “eminent domain.”

Norment, suggests Nixon, has a conflict of interest as defined by the General Assembly Conflicts of Interest Act. Among other sections of the act, he quotes Section 30-103 (5), which states that no legislator shall “Accept any money … or business or professional opportunity that reasonably tends to influence him in the performance of his public duties.”

(Read Nixon’s full complaints against Norment and his fellow senator and law partner Kenneth W. Stolle.)

I do not highlight Nixon’s complaint because I agree that Norment and Stolle have a conflict of interest. I don’t have enough information to agree or disagree. I don’t know enough about the history of eminent domain legislation to know whether Norment’s change of heart between 2000 and 2005 was as dramatic as Nixon portrays it. More to the point, I haven’t heard either Norment’s and Stolle’s side of the story.

But I do think that Nixon raises a legitimate issue. Although it would be premature on the basis of the evidence found in his complaints to assemble a lynch mob and exact mob justice, Nixon does present enough information to warrant further inquiry. As citizens and bloggers, we should be asking questions. Here are some that I have:

  • What is the history of Norment’s legislation regarding eminent domain issues? Is his about-face as dramatic as Nixon suggests? Or has Nixon cherry picked bills to make his case?
  • If Nixon’s portrayal is fair, what could account for Norment’s change of heart? A hunting expedition in 2001? That sounds a trifle simplistic. As memory serves me, Norment has been closely aligned with Dominion since long before 2001 — he was a key player in engineering the utility de-regulation that Dominion wanted. How deep does his relationship with Dominion go?
  • Kaufman and Canoles clients include local governments and utilities. Who are those clients? Name names. What eminent-domain litigation have they been involved in? Cite cases. Has Norment performed any actual legal work for those clients, or has he brought any of them to the firm in his capacity as rainmaker? Again, name names.

Nixon has a lot of homework to do, it seems to be, before he can make a conflict-of-interest case against Norment or Stolle. At the same time, the close connections of these two lawmakers to companies like Dominion do warrant closer attention. One place to start digging is the Virginia Public Access Project. Another is Richmond Sunlight.

Update: The Washington Times and Virginian-Pilot have covered this story. The Pilot says that Norment and Stolle sought an opinion last week from Attorney General Bob McDonnell, “who advised them they are permitted to debate and vote on condemnation bills.” State law requires legislators to abstain from action only when they, their immediate family members or their business clients have a personal interest.

Both senators told the Times that they do not practice eminent-domain law and that the lawyers in their firm who do overwhelmingly represent landowners fighting efforts to have their land taken through eminent domain. “I think it is without merit,” Mr. Stolle said. “I have never practiced eminent-domain [law] and have no financial interest in eminent domain.”

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One response to “The Case Against Norment: Suggestive but Not Yet Persuasive”

  1. I can’t think of any reason that a landowner should NOT have the appraisals obtained by the condemnor. That would seem to be an elementary part of discovery.

    Neither can I see any reason that one subject to a taking shouldn’t expect a jury trial if he cannot reach an amicable settlement. If the taking is for the benefit of the public, then they are best able to identify its worth.

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