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Va Senate Dems say they’ll take power question to court

Last week Virginia’s Senate Democratic Caucus members said they would challenge Republicans’ claim to hold a Senate majority.

Today, Democrats said that challenge would come through a lawsuit.

After the legislative elections gave both parties 20 seats each in the state Senate, Republicans declared they hold control, because Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling votes to break ties. Bolling said he would vote with his fellow Republicans on legislation to organize the Senate.

Democrats say there’s no legal precedent for Bolling to vote on organizational matters. In a conference call with reporters, they said they’ll ask a court to interpret the law.

“It’s never been settled on something like this,” Sen. Dick Saslaw said of the lieutenant governor’s voting powers. “It’s not just a matter of this year. It ought to get settled for all time.”

Democrats claim Republicans are unfairly grabbing power, and that a 20-20 split should mean a similar split in committee appointments. They want an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on each Senate committee.

“What we’re asking for from our colleagues is simple fairness,” said Sen. Don McEachin. “I would hope my Republican colleagues will remember the words they uttered in 1996. If it was fair then, it’s fair now.”

Republicans say Bolling does have authority to vote on organizational issues, and that 20 plus 1 is, in effect, 21 — a majority. They say Democrats are trying to litigate an election they lost at the voting booth.

The question last arose in 1995 and 1996. Then both parties also had 20 seats in the Senate. Democrats agreed to share power with Republicans, and some committees had co-chairmen from each party. But as Republicans have noted, Democrats did that only because then-senator Virgil Goode threatened to defect to the Republicans if power wasn’t shared.

The Democrats then were prepared to take control, and asked state constitutional scholar A. E. “Dick” Howard for an opinion on the lieutenant governor’s voting abilities. Howard wrote an opinion that said the lieutenant governor had broad power to vote on ties, and it’s that opinion Republicans are relying on now.

Howard’s opinion is not legally binding, however. Democrats did not have details about where, when or how their lawsuit will be filed.