For a third time, the Virginia attorney general’s office made arguments Wednesday to dismiss a long-winded lawsuit over the constitutionality of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fees.
With help from the Legal Aid Justice Center, five Charlottesville-area residents filed a lawsuit against Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Richard Holcomb in 2016, alleging their constitutional rights were violated when their licenses were suspended for unpaid court costs without notice or a hearing.
The issue has been at least temporarily assuaged, Deputy Solicitor General Michelle Kallen argued Wednesday, pointing to a budget amendment introduced this year by Gov. Ralph Northam. The measure ends the state’s practice of suspending driver licenses for unpaid court fees and fines and to reinstate the driving privileges for those who currently have their licenses suspended, she said.
On July 1, more than 500,000 Virginians will have their licenses reinstated, Kallen said. She urged U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon to hold off on ruling on the unconstitutionality of the law until the next General Assembly session, as the attorney general’s office expects a surge of political support for a repeal.
“We ask that you give it a little bit of time to let the political process play out,” Kallen said.
For the past two General Assembly sessions a bill to end license suspensions for unpaid court costs died in committee. Most recently, the bill was unexpectedly killed in February by four legislators — including Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle — in a House of Delegates vote.
Despite these recent losses, Kallen said she had “no reason to believe” House leadership would remain the same following the upcoming November general elections, reiterating that defendant Holcomb, Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring have all expressed support of a repeal.
“We have a unique case here where all parties wish to see the law changed,” she said.
Jonathan Blank, an attorney for the plaintiffs, took issue with Kallen’s portrayal of the issue as moot. Though Northam’s amendment will reinstate licenses on July 1, the amendment only lasts until July 2020, at which point — if the law has not been repealed — Northam will have to propose another budget amendment, creating what Blank called a “temporary fix.”
“If it hasn’t been repealed, if it is still on the books, then it is still the law,” he said. “Every day that goes by is a day further from this case being over,” he said.
Earlier in the hearing, Kallen had referenced Johnson v. Jessup, a very similar case from North Carolina that was recently accepted by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which expects to hear the case sometime next year. Kallen argued Moon should hold off on ruling on the constitutionality until the Fourth Circuit has heard that case.
Blank disagreed with this argument, claiming that the Stinnie v. Holcomb license suspension case has already gone further in terms of testimony than the Johnson case.
Moon did not rule on the motion but indicated he likely would soon.
Following the hearing, Angela Ciolfi, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, said she was hopeful the court would see that betting on the General Assembly to change the law is a poor decision.
“What the defense is essentially asking is for the judge to take out his crystal ball and predict what the General Assembly will do in the future, but I never try to place any bets on what the General Assembly is or isn’t going to do,” she said.
Ciolfi said she did not understand why the state is still trying to delay or dismiss the case if top officials are also in support of changing the law.
“It’s really frankly mystifying as to why the government continues to ask for more delay and more dithering on this law that everyone agrees is, as a matter of policy, a bad law and that is likely to be unconstitutional,” she said.
Pending Moon’s ruling on the motion to dismiss or delay, a tentative trial date has been set aside in August.