A federal judge in Norfolk has issued a subpoena, summoning the city of Virginia Beach to respond to a suit filed in November 2017 claiming the city’s system of electing city council violates the voting rights of its Black citizens
United States District Court Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen has ordered the city to answer political rights activist Latasha Holloway’s lawsuit challenging the at-large method of electing the city council of Virginia Beach. Judge Allen, who is the first Black woman to sit on the federal district court in Norfolk, is also the Chief Judge for the Eastern District and will hear the case.
Roy Perry-Bey, the Executive Director of the United Front For Justice, (UFJ) has been assisting Holloway in filing the suit and finding an attorney to represent her.
Perry-Bey said the judge issued the summons February 12. It calls for the city to respond to the summons in 20 days.
Once that is done, the judge will set a date to hear both sides in the argument and then determine the merits of Holloway’s complaint.
If she agrees with the complaint, she will set up a schedule to allow the opposing sides in the case to submit evidence to support their respective positions.
Once the Judge receives all of the “discovery” evidence, she will set a date to hold a trial to hear Holloway vs. the City of Virginia Beach.
Perry-Bey said he expects a trial to begin no later than mid-July.
Meanwhile, Holloway has been seeking, according to Perry-Bey, to have the court appoint her a lawyer since she cannot afford one. But, according to Perry-Bey, since she is filing a civil claim, he was told federal courts do not provide attorneys for indigent citizens as they do for criminal cases.
A petition that was filed seeking an attorney for Holloway was denied and Perry-Bey said the UCF has filed an appeal to determine why the court is refusing to aid her in a case which could be an expensive effort.
The suit, Latasha Holloway vs. the city of Virginia Beach, was filed November 20, 2017, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond.
Earlier this year the case was moved to Federal District Court in Norfolk.
Holloway’s suit claims the city’s hybrid single district-at-large system of electing council violates the voting rights of Blacks and other minorities by diluting their voting power and deterring them from electing people of their choice.
For instance, a candidate for council in the Bayside section of the city receives votes from that district. Bayside is targeted as an area of the city where a minority district could be drawn.
Voters from other parts of the city can cast votes for that candidate in Bayside, too. Thus, the decision of the residents of Bayside may be nullified by people who do not live in the district and share their political interests.
The suit asserts the system is a violation of the Voting Rights Act, and the First, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. According to the UFJ, the city’s 1906 charter mandating at-large elections was a means to promote White Supremacy.
If the suit is successful, and depending on the court’s direction in implementing it, the changes would not be developed and imposed until after the 2020 census.
Black leaders have complained for years about Virginia Beach’s system of electing council but have failed to reform it.
Currently there are no African Americans on the 11-member Virginia Beach City Council. There is only one Black member on the School Board, since the voting districts reflect the ones used to elect council.
Since Virginia Beach became a city 55 years ago, only three Black people have been elected to its city council. John Perry was the first Black to serve on the Beach Council; Louisa Strayhorn was the second; and Amelia Ross Hammond was the third. All three served one term.
Virginia Beach is the only major city in Hampton Roads which has not elected a Black mayor.
Perry-Bey said the Black population is estimated to be around 89,000 or 19 percent of the population, according to the most recent census estimates.
It is the state’s largest city, and while the Black population is scattered, proponents of election system reform say there are a number of neighborhoods with large concentrations of Black residents which would enable the creation of a minority voting district.
Holloway’s suit has secured the support of several council members. John Moss has expressed his support in a GUIDE article in early December. Jessica Abbott and Ben Davenport, according to Carl Wright of the city’s NAACP, have spoken positively of it.
Wright said he hoped all would support the suit “and do the right thing and support an inclusive system, that includes a ward system or true at-large system. We will not know who on council supports it until the council takes a vote.”
Rev. Michael G. Daniels is the Senior Pastor of the Enoch Baptist Church in the Bayside area which has a large minority population.
He said Bayside is not being represented by a Black person on council or school board.
Rev. Daniels said that he supports the aims of the suit and has encouraged others to do so as well.
“The current system makes it difficult for a minority to secure a seat on council,” said Rev. Daniels. “So the majority community will control the council and all of the city related to the city. It is to their advantage to keep the status quo. So a system needs to be put in place that assures an opportunity for a minority to have equity on city council and school board.”
In a press statement, Perry-Bey said, “The court must decide if the system dilutes minority votes and that city council elections are not ‘equally open to participation’ by all minority members.”
According to the UFJ of Virginia, although Voting Rights Act lawsuits have forced reforms in many cities’ election systems across the country, this case is the second such suit filed since 1997 that may be successful against Virginia Beach.
The lawsuit was filed under Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act. Section 2 prohibits cities from using voting practices or procedures which result in „a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.“
Holloway, a registered voter in Virginia Beach, told the GUIDE she filed the suit after she could not get a member of the Virginia Beach School Board or council to address issues related to “mistreatment” of her special needs child last year by the staff of a Virginia Beach Public School.
Holloway said the current at-large voting system deprives “all minorities of color” of the right to elect representatives of their choosing to the Virginia Beach City Council.
By Leonard E. Colvin