(From left) Nottoway Electoral Board members April Wright, Tom Reynolds and Sarah Allen presided over an at-times heated June 1 meeting about the registrar position. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit over the contentious firing of former Nottoway County Registrar Angela Stewart and another election official who worked with her, ruling that city and county electoral boards function more as state bodies rather than local ones.
Stewart, who had served as Nottoway’s registrar for 28 years before being removed from her position in the fall of 2021, argued the move by the Nottoway Electoral Board violated her constitutional rights by being based on false allegations of malfeasance. She also claimed the board didn’t give her an adequate chance to defend her actions in office to try to keep her job.
Though the Nottoway case is largely a local dispute, the court ruling is an indicator that federal courts may not be a strong option for other ousted registrars looking to file legal challenges against the boards that oversee them. Those three-member boards are supposed to be nonpartisan, but decisions to fire registrars are often hotly disputed and frequently involve allegations of political motives. A similar federal lawsuit was filed last month by a recently dismissed registrar in Lynchburg.
In a ruling issued last week, Richmond-based U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds, pointing to 11th Amendment immunity restricting the ability of private individuals to sue states in federal courts.
“Here, it is clear that local electoral boards are more like an arm of the state than they are like municipalities,” Hudson wrote in the July 28 opinion. “Local electoral boards derive all their power and responsibilities from Virginia statutory law. They are subject to the State Board’s supervision and authority, which includes the power to initiate removal proceedings against local electoral board members. Electoral board members are appointed by state circuit court judges. The party affiliation of board members depends upon the party affiliation of the governor, not the party in power locally.”
Even though electoral board members are initially paid with local funds, Hudson noted, their compensation is set by the state and “reimbursed annually from the state treasury.”
Hudson dismissed all the claims Stewart brought under federal law on the basis of the immunity provision and said he had no jurisdiction over the remaining claims under state law, leaving nothing left to argue in the case. He reached the same conclusion in an accompanying case brought by Sharon Caldwell, a former assistant registrar and officer of election in Nottoway who was removed around the same time as Stewart.
Among several other complaints, Stewart alleged she was unfairly retaliated against after publicly telling electoral board members “that they did not understand their roles and were not carrying out their duties,” according to court records.
Attorneys representing the various Nottoway officials Stewart had sued denied her claims and argued the board had clear legal authority to remove her.
“Notably, the Code of Virginia provides members of the local electoral board with broad discretion to remove a general registrar from office for failing to discharge his or her duties according to law,” the legal team for the defendants wrote.
A lawyer for Stewart and Caldwell said the two former election officials plan to keep pursuing their case through the state courts. The two have been “silent” for almost two years, said attorney Melvin Williams, “because it is their goal to seek redress through the courts, and not in the media.”
“These matters are far from concluded, and both ladies look forward to the truth coming out in the proper venue, i.e., a courtroom,” Williams said in an emailed statement.
Williams called Stewart and Caldwell “good and valuable servants of Nottoway County and its citizenry” and noted that Stewart was partially cleared by the conclusion of a Virginia State Police investigation into the Nottoway election feud that resulted in “no finding of criminal culpability” on Stewart’s part.
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