First on WTOP: Lawsuits claim Northam’s COVID-19 orders unconstitutional

A pair of lawsuits filed Tuesday are asking Virginia and federal courts to find unconstitutional Gov. Ralph Northam’s ongoing COVID-19 executive orders restricting businesses in the commonwealth.

The suits were filed by lawyer and Virginia state Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen, D-Fairfax, on behalf of his clients, whose wedding event and restaurant businesses have been suffering. He spoke first to WTOP.

Petersen said Northam’s executive orders have effectively closed his clients’ businesses under his emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic.

“He is using powers that are supposed to be for an emergency but, instead, he’s basically passing long-lasting and semi-permanent laws that are preventing them from operating their businesses,” Petersen said, “and he is doing it without any legislative approval. And that is unconstitutional.”

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Virginia has reported more than 51,000 known COVID-19 cases, and nearly 1,500 related deaths. The commonwealth entered Phase Two of its reopening plan last Friday, though Northern Virginia delayed starting the next phase.

The named clients in the suits are Jon Tigges and Linda Park.

Tigges owns Zion Springs Farm and Winery, a wedding venue in Hamilton, Virginia.

“(The business) has zero revenue for the past three months and may have to cancel all their weddings for the balance of the year,” Petersen said. “They’ve got mortgages. They’ve got employees, they’ve got caterers, cooks, all sorts of bills and overhead, and they have no way to pay this off.”

Park owns a Japanese-style restaurant in Fredericksburg.

“She’s been unable to reopen because of the way her cooking is set up,” Petersen said. “She cooks at the table through using a grill as opposed to in the kitchen. The Department of Health has just closed her down without any hearings, without any legal basis or medical findings or factual

Petersen said Northam’s orders are being enforced selectively and arbitrarily, citing the widespread protests after the Minneapolis police-custody death of George Floyd in recent days.

“We can have people very legitimately protesting, and yet you can’t, say for example, have 70 people to a private wedding where it’s all self-selection,” Petersen said.

The federal lawsuit refers to Northam’s orders as “suspending civil rights in Virginia, including the right to peaceably assemble and attend religious services,” and “depriving certain persons of the right … to own and utilize their private property.”

Petersen said the Democratic governor’s emergency orders should no longer be in place, and that the legislature should have been called back to decide how to proceed.

“And then, you will have a law that’s passed by the legislature, where you have 140 people from both political parties and all regions of the commonwealth actually participating,” Petersen said. “That’s how a democracy is supposed to function, but that is not what is happening right now.”

He said he filed the suits as emergency motions because having these cases heard and decided is an emergency for the businesses that may not be able to ever reopen without speedy relief.

Michelle Murillo

Michelle Murillo has been a part of the WTOP family since 2014. She started her career in Central Florida before working in radio in New York City and Philadelphia.

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