Howell Rejects Senate Districts

Published 5:04 pm Thursday, February 7, 2013

RICHMOND – Declaring the integrity of the House of Delegates and the position of Speaker of the House depended upon it, Speaker William J. Howell rejected a radical Senate redistricting plan Wednesday afternoon.

The plan would have vastly changed Senate Districts approved two years ago and split Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward into three different districts.

Speaker Howell's action, unless circumvented by still-determined Senate Republicans in some future maneuver, means all three counties will remain together in the 22nd Senate District of Sen. Tom Garrett, who had joined Senate Republicans in a voting bloc last month to ram the redistricting plan through an evenly split Senate 20-19 when Democratic Senator Henry Marsh was in Washington, D.C. attending President Obama's inauguration.

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<!– 1upcrlf2 –>The Senate plan drastically amended a House bill that was meant only to technically tweak district lines where precincts were split. Speaker Howell ruled that the Senate amendment was not germane and out of order.

“I think it's much more important for the integrity of this institution and for the integrity of the Speaker's chair to have a consistent and narrowly drawn rule (on germaneness) and that's what I've done for the last eleven years,” Speaker Howell, a Fredericksburg Republican, told the House of Delegates.

“I've tightly ruled about how germaneness should be interpreted, and I'm not going to be inconsistent. I think that the responsible upholding of the honor and integrity of the House and of the institution of the Speaker requires that I be consistent in my rulings and therefore I am going to rule that the Senate amendments are not germane and out of order,” he said, ending the discussion and consideration of the Senate redistricting plan that would have allowed Republicans to have a super majority, rather than the current 20-20 deadlock.

“Germaneness, as I'm sure everybody in here knows,” Speaker Howell said, leading up to his ruling, “means 'in close relationship, appropriate, relative, or pertinent to.' It's a basically parliamentary principle that's been used in this country since 1789 and it's been in the Virginia House for centuries. And the basic principle lies in the need for orderly legislation. It prevents the presentation to the House of propositions that might not be reasonably anticipated and for which they might not be properly prepared.”

The Senate redistricting plan took the Commonwealth by surprise.

“A proposition of a narrow or limited scope may not be amended by a proposition of a more general nature, even though the proposition may be related,” he said. “The House Bill 259 was introduced…last year to make certain technical amendments to 39 different House Districts. We do this after every redistricting session. We send a memo out to the (Voter) Registrars across the Commonwealth and we say 'are there some tweaks we can make to the plan that will make your life easier?' And generally, as was the case with House Bill 259, we eliminated split voting districts. And that's what House Bill 259 did and that's what went over to the Senate.

“House Bill 259 as amended by the Senate has been modified to stray dramatically, in my opinion, from the legislation's original purpose of addressing relatively technical minor administrative adjustments to certain districts. This vast rewrite of Senate Districts,” Speaker Howell said, “goes well beyond the usual legislative electoral precinct tweaks that are customary in each redistricting cycle and goes well beyond the original purpose of House Bill 259.

“Now it's important to note when we're talking about germaneness that germaneness is a broad topic and it's really in the eye of the beholder,” he continued, explaining a legislative detail that, though fine, is critical. “Some of you were here when a previous Speaker, when questioned on a ruling of germaneness, said 'germaneness is whatever I want it to be.'”

Speaker Howell refused to go down that road, citing the importance of the integrity of the House and the position of Speaker.

In a statement released later to the press, the Speaker added, the Senate redistricting plan is “in violation of House rules and the principles by which I have lead this body over the last 10 years. This is not a decision I made lightly. I am committed to upholding the honor and traditions of both the office of Speaker, the institution as a whole and the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Feedback from Senate Democrats was immediate and enthusiastic, with press statements flying.

The Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus issued a press release quoting a trio of Senators.

“I appreciate the Speaker ruling in the spirit of the honor, integrity, and history of the General Assembly. He rose above petty partisanship,” said Senator Donald A. McEachin, of Henrico, “to act in the best interest of the Commonwealth. I look forward to working with the Speaker to address the important issues facing Virginia.”

Senator Richard L. Saslaw, of Fairfax, noted, “I told people from day one, when they asked me what I thought Bill Howell would do with it, that the Speaker would do what's right. He made a fair judgment and called it as his saw it.”

Senator Marsh praised the Speaker for upholding “the integrity of the House and the Constitution.”

The Virginia Constitution prescribes that redistricting take place once every 10 years, following the national Census. The Senate plan was effectively a second redistricting attempt in three years.

Had the House passed the bill, as amended, it would have required Justice Department approval, following the signature of Gov. McDonnell.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, Jr., a James City County Republican, issued a statement expressing disappointment in Speaker Howell's ruling but indicated the redistricting fight, in the long-term, is not over.

“While the speaker's judgment today means that House Bill 259 will not be promptly enacted, we are confident that the districts approved by the Senate on January 21 will be the districts under which the 2015 elections will be conducted,” the Senator said in a statement to the press.

Sen. Garrett could not be reached for comment.