LEGISLATIVE immunity is an issue that comes up periodically at many levels of government. The concept goes back to England in the 1600s. The original purpose was to prevent political arrests that would stop lawmakers from voting.
It resurfaced in Virginia during the latest session of the General Assembly when Del. Chris Hurst, D–Montgomery, was stopped on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. He was released without being charged despite showing a blood alcohol content level of .085 percent, just above Virginia’s .08 threshold.
Sen. Bryce Reeves, R–Spotsylvania, subsequently proposed a bill amending the state constitution to limit legislative immunity.
There are still a lot of things that our lawmakers can’t do with impunity. The constitution says that, during a session, legislators may not be arrested for anything short of “treason, felony, or breach of peace.” So, no selling state secrets to North Carolina.
In an effort to avoid the kind of mischief that bred the English legislation four centuries ago, Reeves’ bill drew the line at citizen-arrest warrants.
Reeves said his bill was not brought “in a political nature.” But like everything else these days, it seems, this one went along party lines. Almost all the Republicans in the Senate voted for it. None of Hurst’s fellow Democrats did, and the bill failed.
The U.S. Constitution and almost all state constitutions protect legislators from arrest if such an arrest would block them from voting. Perhaps if Hurst’s misstep had been a little more egregious than drifting five-thousandths of a percent over the DUI limit, there would have more of an outcry and a different result when it came to a vote.
However, as with the redistricting issue, a bill changing the immunity exception would have faced high hurdles even if the Senate had passed it. Amending the Virginia Constitution requires two majority votes, in separate sessions, by both houses, separated by a general election for the House of Delegates.
Images of a camel and the eye of a needle come to mind.
Nobody should be above the law, especially the people we elect to make them. Seeing a senator walk after what might have been an expensive evening for one of his constituents doesn’t sit well with the public.
However, it is likely that we will have to depend on our politicians’ inherent decency and judgment rather than state law in such cases for the foreseeable future.
Rest assured, though, that the next time a Republican in state office steps over the line and gets a free pass, a Democrat will present a similar bill, which probably will get about as far as Reeves’ unsuccessful effort did.