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COLUMN — After 83 days, the special session is over

Monday, Nov. 9, after 83 days, the 2020 Special Session adjourned.

We were initially called into the Special Session to develop a revised two-year budget after the coronavirus wrecked the spending plan the General Assembly passed in March. The session quickly evolved into a debate on police and criminal justice reform.

Gov. Ralph Northam already has signed into law bills that bar police from using chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants. He also signed bills to make it easier to decertify police officers involved in wrongdoing, establish minimum training standards for law enforcement agencies, and require officers to intervene when they witness colleagues using excessive force.

The legislature approved the governor’s suggested changes to several bills, including a bill that banned police from making traffic stops for various minor infractions, including prohibiting officers from stopping vehicles at night that don’t have functioning headlights or taillights.

I have a 15-year-old son who is learning to drive. I can’t understand how this legislature voted to not allow law enforcement to stop him and correct him if any of this equipment was malfunctioning or not being used properly. These laws are in place to keep our communities and roads safe. Yesterday, my colleagues supported Northam’s request to continue to allow police to stop drivers in cars with such malfunctions with amendments.

I am disappointed that our work during the special session did not address all of the issues at hand today with COVID-19, including education and the lack of support our students have received with the struggles of virtual learning, our hospitals and nursing homes and the health and wellness of our elderly population in the commonwealth.

Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment creating a 16-person commission with equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats and seats split between sitting legislators and citizen members. Once new U.S. Census data is received in 2021, the commission will redraw Virginia’s congressional and legislative districts. The commission’s members will be appointed in the coming weeks, and the panel must hold its first meeting before Feb. 1. The budget language approved Monday lays out who is eligible to serve on the commission and the process it will follow. 

Among other things, the language bans people who hold partisan offices, political aides, campaign employees, lobbyists and others from being appointed to the citizen seats on the commission. It also bans political insiders’ relatives from serving on the commission.

It stipulates that the commission’s makeup should reflect Virginia’s “racial, ethnic, geographic and gender diversity.” It also declares that the commission’s records, including internal communications, are public and subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

The language bans commission members from discussing redistricting-related matters with any third parties “outside of a public meeting or hearing.”

It also requires the Supreme Court of Virginia to appoint two experts, or special masters, to draw court-overseen maps if the commission and the General Assembly fail to agree on their own. The special masters would be picked from lists submitted by political leaders from both parties. And it requires any Supreme Court judge related to a member of Congress or the General Assembly to recuse themselves from any redistricting decision. Current Justice Teresa M. Chafin is the sister of state Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon.

Since August, the House of Delegates has been conducting its business virtually, while the Senate has been meeting in person at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond so the senators can socially distance. With the end of the special session, we are now focusing on the 2021 session, which is set to begin Jan. 13. We are still unsure as to how this will look, but I plan to be in Richmond, ready to do the work for the 59th District. Please let me know if you have any legislation you would like to see brought forth.

Del. C. Matthew Fariss represents Buckingham in the Virginia House of Delegates. His email address is DelMFariss@house.virginia.gov.