The Virginia General Assembly is not designed with transparency in mind. This is arguably most evident in the House Courts of Justice Criminal Law Subcommittee, where long dockets are heard by a committee of eleven delegates, eight republicans (Albo-42, Bell-58, Cline-24, Gilbert-15, Miller-50, Morris-64, Adams-16, Collins-29) and three democrats (Herring-46, Mullin-93, Watts-39).
The final Criminal Law Subcommittee on Wednesday, February 1st, was undemocratically opaque even by the existing subcommittee standards in which votes are typically not recorded. In the midst of the docket, Chairman Rob Bell (R-58) unexpectedly introduced two bills that were not scheduled to be heard including HB2000, which would cut off state funding to any locality that declares itself a sanctuary city.
The Worst Legislative Process
The impromptu docket addition did not provide any notice for citizens or organizations to be present for or to speak to the bill. Delegate Bell (R-58) additionally did not allow for any commentary to support or oppose this bill but instead quickly prompted the committee to vote without discussion. HB2000 was quickly and furtively reported out of the Criminal Law subcommittee in the midst of the last docket before crossover. Council for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Charlie Schmidt, remarked on their Facebook page that it was “the worst legislative process [he] had ever seen.”
The subcommittee’s complete disregard for process is abhorrent though it is unfortunately not surprising for those who are familiar with the Criminal Law subcommittee and Delegate Bell’s style, hallmarked by his hostility towards those with whom he does not agree. A representative of the American Bar Association speaking in support of HB1522, a bill that would bar the use of the death penalty for severely mentally ill individuals, was met with derision by Bell who interrupted, “we’re going to be here two hours after you leave” within thirty seconds of the lawyer’s testimony beginning.
A recent bill restricting door-to-door solicitation (HB2375) faced scrutiny based on the fact that Delegate Bell himself had previously attempted to pass similar legislation that failed. The support of the Virginia Commonwealth Attorneys (VACA) only drew more ire from Delegate Bell, who continued to for 15 minutes while the rest of the committee checked their emails and chatted with seatmates.
The Democratic Process?
Breaking with tradition isn’t an unfamiliar tactic when Delegate Bell wishes to enforce his ideological viewpoint on the committee: on Monday, the committee voice voted 5-4 to report HB1611, a bill to reinstate driver’s license for those who have an agreement to pay child support with social services, to Bell’s apparent disappointment. By his order, the subcommittee voted by roll to which a delegate remarks: “we haven’t done this in years.” The result of the roll call vote? The bill failed to report, 6-5.
Chairman Bell’s behavior raises serious questions about his ability to fairly conduct the Criminal Law subcommittee. The violation of democratic process that occurred with the unscheduled introduction of anti-immigration legislation is evidence of the undue power afforded to legislators as a result of the General Assembly’s lack of transparency. Delegate Bell’s behavior is easy to blame, however ten other subcommittee members remained silent while these bills were pushed through without testimony nor objection.
It is time to hold our representatives accountable for their failure to show our democratic process the respect it deserves. We can start this November when we elect a new House of Delegates.