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The Virginia Appellate Lawyer’s Court of Appeals of Virginia Blog

When a County Sues a City . . . Can't Keep their Minds on Nothin' Else

Ok, so maybe Percy Sledge's version was better (actually, credit were credit is due, band members Calvin Lewis was the lyricist and Andrew Wright provided the music), but it's still a good intro to the first of two published opinions from the Court of Appeals of Virginia released today. City of Emporia v. County of Greensville is indeed about a coutnty suing a city.

Emporia is an independent city which is surrounded by and is also the County Seat of Greensville County. The City of Emporia is served by its own Treasurer, Commissioner of the Revenue, Sheriff and General Registrar. The courts system, Greensville County Sheriff, Commonwealth's Attorney and the Public Schools are shared with Greensville County. Check that again . . . Emporia has it's own Sheriff and also shares the Sheriff's Office with Greensville County. That's right, there are two sheriffs in town . . . umm . . . the city.

What this case is really about a bizarre distinction that existed in Virginia until 1971 with respect just how much independence a city could have. And this is going to get a little complicated, so try to hang in there.

Now you may know that at one time there were two types of cities in Virginia -- First Class and Second Class. First Class cities were wholly independent of their surrounding or adjoining counties. But Second Class cities were required to share certain constitutional officers with the surrounding county or an adjoining county, if not wholly surrounding by one county -- or in the case of Galax with both adjoining counties.

Second Class cities were also required to share a circuit court with the surrounding or an adjoining county, but sometimes were allowed their own district court. Actually, this all happened back when we had Hustings Courts, City Court's of Law and Chancery, City Sergeant's Courts, and Justice of the Peace Courts, among others, but I am trying to keep this simple. No really, I am.

Because the Commonwealth's Attorney served both city and county in the Hustings . . . umm . . . Circuit Court, residents of both voted for that office. Likewise, the County Sheriff provided security for the court that served both localities, so that office was also shared . . . except in three cases. Falls Church, which shared its court with Arlington had its own sheriff and did not vote for the Arlington sheriff, and Norton and Emporia had their own sheriffs and voted for the county sheriff (Wise County for Norton and Greensville for Emporia). Why? Well, the answer is because that was they way the City Charters were drafted by the General Assembly and everyone that had anything to do with that is dead, so try not to think about it too much.

The First Class/Second Class distinction was eliminated in the Virginia Constitution of 1971, but cities of the Second Class that were in existence at the time were allowed to continue their schizophrenic relationship with their surrounding/adjoining counties. Which brings us to Code § 15.2-3830, which provides that where a city and a county share a court, "the costs and expenses of the circuit court for the county, including jury costs, and the salaries of the judge and clerk of the circuit court and the clerk, attorney for the Commonwealth and sheriff of the county shall be borne by the city and county in the proportion that the population of each bears to the aggregate population of the city and county."

For fiscal year 2021-2022, Greensville County presented a bill of $676,924.94 to Emporia as it's share of the Sheriff's budget. In prior years, Emporia had gladly (or at least without complaint) forked over the amount requested. But in 2022, the City said "hold on . . . Code § 15.2-3830 says we have to pay the proportionate share of the Sheriff's salary. It doesn't say anything about the Sheriff's Department's budget!" And that is how the County came to sue the City.

The circuit court sided with the County. Before doing so, the City filed a motion craving oyer of some documents related to the Sheriff's budget which the circuit court denied. The City appealed the Court of Appeals, which today reverse the overall judgment, but in doing so finds that the circuit court did not err in denying the motion craving oyer. Now to be honest, I am not sure why Judge AtLee, joined by Judges Beales and Malveaux, chose to address the craving oyer issue since it is not really necessary to the decision, but if you want to know when a motion for craving oyer is appropriate, you can check out the opinion (short answer, you can only crave oyer of documents necessary to determine the merits of the case, and this case was limited to the interpretation of Code § 15.2-3830, not anything specific about the sheriff's budget).

The main issue is decided under that most vaunted of rules of statutory construction -- the plain meaning rule. The best way to read a statute is to, well, read it. If it does not admit of two interpretations, then its meaning is plain. Here, the grammar and punctuation are clear -- the costs and expenses of the court are to be shared, but only the salaries of the listed constitutional officers.

One final point that struck me when reading the statute and apparently struck the parties and the Court as well. Code § 15.2-3830 refers in close succession to the "clerk of the circuit court" and then "the clerk." But, of course, there is only one clerk of the circuit court. The parties suggested that perhaps the second "clerk" was a reference to some prior, now extinct office -- though what it might be no one seemed to know. The Court deftly avoids deciding the issue as it "does not change our analysis."

After that mindbending journey, Eric Antonio Newsome v. Commonwealth of Virginia will seem normal by comparison. Indeed, it is all too normal given the recent stories of random attacks on strangers to respond to a challenge on social media. While the incident in this case was captured on video, it seems not to have been for obtaining likes, I am not sure that makes it any better. After being identified in the video, Mr. Newsome was convicted of, disorderly conduct, assault and battery by mob and participating in a riot.

This particular riot was indeed an ugly thing as a group of 15 to 20 people surrounded a women, a stranger to them, and began insulting her appearance. Apparently not satisfied with this, when the victim attempted to push passed the group, she was physically assaulted. When her sister and brother-in-law arrived and tried the rescue her, they were attacked as well, with one of crowd hitting the brother-in-law with a bottle sufficiently hard to knock him unconscious. Yes, alcoholic beverages were involved, as you probably guessed.

Newsome appealed his convictions challenging the sufficiency of the evidence. Curiously, Newsome does not appear to have ever denied being present in the crowd --I guess that video evidence was probably tough to impeach. Rather, he argues that the evidence failed to show that he was a participant rather than a mere onlooker, or even if he participated, this really wasn't a mob assault or a riot, and more a matter of 15 to 20 people independently giving unwanted attention to the victim and her would-be rescuers. Apparently for the first time during oral argument he even suggested that the video showed him "trying to help the victim."

The Court of Appeals, Judge O'Brien joined by Judges Huff and Athey, give these arguments extremely short shrift, noting that all these arguments require the Court to review the evidence heard and seen by the jury in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth and to reject any contrary evidence proffered by the defense.

In fairness to Newsome, the evidence did show that he appeared to regret his actions, aided the victims after the mob had scattered and also cooperated with the police, but the Court notes that "these subsequent actions do not negate the evidence that he was a member of the mob when the victim was attacked."

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