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Democratic majority delivers on liberal agenda in Virginia, a remade Southern state

Proclaiming a mandate from voters, Democrats in the Virginia legislature ushered the formerly conservative statehouse to the ideological left on a wide range of issues during their first session with full control of state government.

Over the past 60 days, Virginia Democrats acted to tighten gun control laws, roll back restrictions on abortion, raise the state’s minimum wage, decriminalize marijuana possession and enact protections for the LGBTQ community, among other things. Approved legislation is now before the party’s leader, Gov. Ralph Northam.

The new majority faced hurdles that included a deluge of proposed legislation and internal ideological divisions that at times appeared to threaten movement. Democrats also faced strong opposition from Republicans, who asserted that the state’s new direction would threaten social stability and economic growth.

Democrats largely prevailed, through work done by the most racially and ethnically diverse General Assembly that Virginia has ever elected. It was a marked change from just a few decades ago when the legislature included few African Americans and almost no other ethnic minorities. This year, people of color carried some of the most significant bills.

At the helm in the House were Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax County and Majority Leader Charniele Herring of Alexandria, the first women to hold the posts. Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, served as that chamber’s first female and African American president pro tempore.

“This General Assembly session has been historic in the extraordinary progress the House of Delegates has made for Virginians in every corner of the commonwealth,” Filler-Corn said. “In November, voters called for swift, impactful action to make their communities safer and more prosperous. We have delivered on that mandate.”

Republicans, without either chamber or the governorship for the first time since the beginning of 1994, sought to defend the state’s business-friendly, socially conservative policies they had enacted while in the majority. They were backed by large demonstrations railing against Democrats’ agenda, most notably a gun rights rally that drew an estimated 22,000 people in January and a roughly 2,500-person anti-abortion rally in February.

“What we saw from the Democrats is exactly what we warned voters about during the last campaign,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “They voted to raise taxes on hard-working Virginia families, passed scores of new laws that will kill jobs, and weakened our criminal justice system. Our commonwealth will be less prosperous, and our streets will be less safe as these policies begin to take effect.”

House Democrats ideologically further to the left faced some resistance from members of their own party. Senate Democrats at times sought to check their counterparts in the House on the bounds of what they saw as their mandate.

Even with a slight Democratic edge — 21-19, compared with the party’s 55-45 majority in the House — the Senate scaled back several key measures, turning out more moderate versions of bills than the House of Delegates.

The Senate tempered House gun control legislation, killing an assault weapons ban the House backed and watering down measures to raise the penalty for “recklessly” leaving a firearm near a child and to give localities more control over gun ordinances. Seven of the eight gun control measures Northam backed made it out of the legislature.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, a moderate Democrat who helped kill the assault weapons ban and who pushed for requirements that localities must meet before taking down Confederate statues, among other things, described himself as playing “a little bit more defense.”

“Clearly now that the Democrats have the majority, there are things that we’re going to move forward on,” he said. “For me, it’s a question of: Are we going to do a dozen things or are we going to do 50 things? I think sometimes when you try and do 50 things, sometimes you get outside of what your mandate is.”

Petersen added: “A lot of it is, to be honest, just trying to slow things down and that’s what I tried to do.”

The Senate’s leaders — Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, and Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City — have served in the body together since 1992. Only two senators were new to the legislature, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, and Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

“The Republicans and Democrats” in the Senate, “while we have our policy differences, are more collegial and because we’re more collegial, we have better communication between one another and respect one another,” Norment said. “We talk a lot with one another and with rare exceptions, we disagree agreeably so I am pleased with the more temperate and measured approach.”

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, noted that senators serve four-year terms while delegates serve two year-terms, and that senators, on average, have more seniority in the General Assembly.

“House members bring a greater sense of urgency, especially the newer and younger ones. Sometimes that isn’t always top of mind with Senate members,” he said.

Divisions between the House and Senate were most dramatic on redistricting, the process for redrawing legislative and congressional districts. On what was supposed to be the last day of lawmaking, Democrats in the House and Senate feuded in the public eye, with a showdown that saw Democratic senators stomp to the House doors. The House had narrowly approved a proposed constitutional amendment, but House leaders, who opposed the measure, had not formally communicated it to the Senate. Ultimately, the House sent it over Saturday night as part of a deal to extend the session.

House Democrats juggled a wide range of views in their caucus, with freshmen and younger lawmakers sometimes challenging party leaders. Rasoul, 38, opposed landmark legislation on renewable energy in favor of what he called a more progressive approach. He tried to kill it on the House floor, sending the leadership scrambling before the chamber passed the bill.

Of the nine House Democrats who joined Republicans to pass the controversial redistricting amendment — against the wishes of a vast majority of black lawmakers in the chamber — three were freshmen.

Among them was Del. Suhas Subramanyam, D-Loudoun. He also introduced legislation to challenge Dominion Energy’s power over the retirement of its coal and natural gas plants. Passage of the measure was unprecedented in a legislature long known for having strong allies of the state’s largest utility in both parties.

“Maybe that’s my niche: going up against people that never lose in Richmond and seeing what happens,” Subramanyam said in an interview.

Subramanyam’s bill underscored new challenges for the state’s business community with a new party in power — one with members eager to make Virginia a good state for workers as well as business.

Lawmakers approved an increase to the state’s minimum wage, agreeing to gradually boost it to $12, not $15 as the House had proposed, and to allow collective bargaining among public employees if a locality signs off on the idea, hinting at a growing appetite among Democrats for stronger unions in the state.

While the legislature moved forward with those measures, it did not repeal the state’s right-to-work law, which business groups banded together to defend. The law says participation in a union cannot be a condition of employment.

“That’s a really big part of Virginia’s business-friendly work environment,” said Nicole Riley, the Virginia state director of NFIB, a national small business association. “The fight’s probably not over.”

In the second year of the new Democratic majority lawmakers are likely to consider measures such as mandated paid sick leave — which nearly passed this year before the Senate scrapped it on the final day - legalizing marijuana and eliminating the death penalty. Democrats will also look at reforming parole, which the General Assembly abolished in 1995.

As the legislature finished its business Sunday, with only the budget and the appointment of judges remaining, thousands marched on Capitol Square in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, a women’s rights measure that could be ratified because of Virginia’s support.

The proposed constitutional amendment — now in a court fight over its deadline — was among the first big-ticket items the General Assembly took up, passing it with women presiding over both chambers — a first for Virginia.

Democrats on Sunday joined the march on the steps of the Capitol — a hotbed of political activism this year — as ERA supporters danced, sang and took pictures with lawmakers whose votes could have it enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

“It reminds me of why we came down here,” Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, told several of his colleagues back inside the Senate as a legislative session that transformed the state neared its end. “I needed a little bit of that.”


Plus
Budget includes $25 million for tunnel at Capitol complex, funds for state worker raises

Beneath the plans for compensating public employees, moderating college tuition and giving dental benefits to adults in Medicaid, the pending two-year state budget includes $25 million in bonds for a tunnel to connect the Virginia Capitol and the new General Assembly Building.

The budget provision would fulfill a long-standing desire of the Senate that has become more acute because of concerns about security and safety in the Capitol complex in downtown Richmond.

“All I can say is the Senate really, really wanted it,” said Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a member of the conference committee that negotiated a budget agreement late Saturday. “It was one of the last items to close the deal.”

The budget deal will come before the General Assembly on Thursday, the 65th day of a momentous session. It went into overtime so lawmakers could complete work on a glut of bills and have time to review the proposed budgets for the two fiscal years that begin on July 1 and the current fiscal year that ends on June 30.

The agreement would transform the $135 billion proposed budget that Gov. Ralph Northam introduced in December by including $250 million in raises and bonuses for state employees and state-supported local employees, $290.5 million for 2% raises in both years for public school teachers, and giving almost $80 million to colleges and universities that freeze tuition in the next school year.

Northam’s budget blueprint didn’t address any of those issues, beyond a 3% raise for teachers in the second year, but the governor provided the legislature with more than $292 million in additional revenues last month to boost the state rainy day fund and spend on other priorities.

His original budget also left unspent about $200 million for the new General Assembly — led by Democratic majorities in both chambers for the first time in more than 20 years — to use for its priorities.

“A lot of credit goes to the governor for the level of resources he made available so we could support pay increases for our employees and our teachers,” House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, the first African American to lead the powerful money committee, said in an interview on Monday.

Senate Finance and Appropriations Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, the first woman to lead that committee, said in a statement, “The governor’s budget was an excellent starting point and the House and Senate collaborated to further address the priorities of all Virginians.”

Howell and Torian touted the proposed budget’s structural balance — meaning it provides the revenue necessary to support spending in both years — and additional money in Virginia’s reserve funds that will boost savings to $2.1 billion by mid-2022. The proposed budget would add $182 million to the cash reserve and $112 million to the rainy day fund.

“This budget prioritizes the people of Virginia and preserves structural balance to protect Virginia’s AAA bond rating,” Howell said.

Compensation for public employees was the biggest priority for budget negotiators.

The agreement follows the Senate’s proposed approach for state employees by giving them a 3% bonus the first year and a 3% salary increase in the second. The package also applies to university staff, faculty and classified employees.

The budget deal also provides for a 2% bonus for state-supported local employees and a 3% raise the second year.

“This will be the first time the bonus has gone to sheriff’s deputies, county clerks and people like that,” Sickles said.

The agreement follows the House approach for teacher compensation with raises of 2% in each year for positions funded jointly by the state and local school systems under the Standards of Quality.

“Virginia must make steady progress toward the goal of lifting teacher pay toward the national average, and this marks the fourth consecutive year the state has included in its budget salary support for SOQ positions,” Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston said in a statement. “That’s not happened in the commonwealth in 20 years.”

Livingston also praised the assembly for “lifting up our students and public schools” by including money in the budget for school counselors and staff for students learning English as a second language, school systems with high concentrations of at-risk students, and small and rural schools with declining enrollments.

The budget plan would give state police a 2% raise the first year, as well as pay adjustments based on years of service, and a 3% raise in the second. The Senate had proposed a $4 surcharge on vehicle registration fees to generate $27 million annually for state police compensation, but the House Appropriations panel let the bill die.

The budget also would compensate adjunct faculty at higher education institutions with a 3% bonus the first year and a 3% raise in the second.

Funding for higher education was the biggest obstacle to a budget agreement. The House insisted on money for colleges and universities that moderate tuition increases — as the state did in this school year for the first time — but the Senate preferred putting more money in student financial aid.

“We’re trying to look out for working families,” Torian said.

The compromise provides almost $80 million for a tuition freeze in the first year and boosts financial aid by more than $60 million, as the Senate had sought.

“It basically takes [tuition moderation] off the table in the second year,” Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said in an interview on Monday.

Health care also is central to the agreement, which provides money for community-based programs in behavioral health, additional Medicaid waiver slots for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and, for the first time, an adult dental benefit for Medicaid recipients.

The state’s share of the Medicaid dental benefit would be $34 million over two years, but the federal government would pay $91 million. That includes a 90% federal share for those who received benefits under Medicaid expansion for the first time last year.

“It’ll have so much positive effect on all of those people,” Barker said.

The agreement eliminates $146 million Northam proposed for a new reinsurance program to lower health insurance premiums and directs the administration to come up with a plan for the program next year.

However, Torian said, “We are addressing health care equity and affordability by establishing a State Health Benefit Exchange to lower insurance costs and raising Medicaid provider reimbursement rates to preserve access to critical services.”

The budget agreement would reduce capital spending by $500 million from what Northam had proposed as legislators sought to reduce state debt by substituting cash and deferring capital projects.

The Capitol complex tunnel is an exception to that approach. The Senate originally proposed to use a combination of cash and bonds, but the final deal would pay for the project with $25 million in bonds as a supplement to the $300 million plan approved in 2014 to replace the General Assembly Building and renovate Old City Hall.

The original plan includes construction of a parking garage and offices at North Ninth and East Broad streets that would connect to the new legislative building under construction by a tunnel beneath Ninth Street.

Virginia Capitol Police Chief Steve Pike said he previously discussed the possibility of a tunnel between the new General Assembly Building and the Capitol to allow people to move freely throughout the complex after entering through a single security screening point.

Barker, speaking for the Senate, said: “By and large, it’s a security screening issue.”


Virginia
VCU Health halts 30-year campaign that seized patients’ wages, put liens against homes

In one of the most sweeping moves yet by a nonprofit hospital system to reduce aggressive bill collection, VCU Health is halting seizure of patients’ wages and removing thousands of liens against patients’ homes, some dating to the 1990s.

“Health care needs to be more affordable for patients, and we want to be part of the solution,” said Melinda Hancock, VCU Health’s chief administrative and financial officer. “We believe that no hospital bill should change the economic status of a family.”

The moves follow an investigation last year by Kaiser Health News that found VCU Health and Virginia’s other major teaching hospital system, UVA Health, pursued tens of thousands of patients over the years for overdue bills, sending many into bankruptcy.

The practices included filing courthouse liens against the value of patients’ homes and garnishing wages, many from workers at lower-pay employers, such as retailers and restaurants.

Canceling liens ends the threat that VCU Health, part of Virginia Commonwealth University, will take big chunks of equity when family homes are sold. Liens can easily reach thousands of dollars per property. Virginia allows creditors to garnish up to 25% of someone’s earnings.

“That is great news for VCU patients,” said Jenifer Bosco, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center who specializes in medical debt. “I don’t recall hearing about other hospitals taking that step and canceling decades of past liens.”

Because they accrued interest of 6% annually or more, old liens could let VCU and UVA seize amounts far higher than the original hospital and doctor bills.

Undoing decades of property claims will require VCU lawyers to visit every circuit courthouse across the state, “which could take up to a year to complete,” said system spokeswoman Laura Rossacher.

VCU’s moves are “an instant way to create a lot of goodwill and relieve patients of an incredible financial and emotional burden,” said Erin Fuse Brown, a law professor at Georgia State University who studies hospital billing. “UVA should do the same.”

VCU and UVA are the two major teaching hospital systems in Virginia, taking in billions annually and recording tens of millions of dollars in profits. UVA Health is part of the University of Virginia, based in Charlottesville.

Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist, “is proud to see VCU Health System taking significant, in some cases historic, steps to scale back aggressive medical collections and address the pain it’s caused,” said his spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky.

Both VCU and UVA, which are state-run, have increased financial assistance and discounts for uninsured patients since KHN published its reports.

VCU pledged earlier to end all routine lawsuits for overdue bills, which are the precursor to garnishments and liens. The latest move cancels such claims resulting from old suits and judgments.

VCU’s in-house doctor group, MCV Physicians, filed more than 56,000 lawsuits against patients for $81 million over seven years, KHN found. VCU’s flagship hospital, VCU Medical Center, stopped filing patient suits seven years ago.

The litigation also included more than 15,000 garnishment cases over that period, some for VCU Medical Center but mostly for the physician group, the data showed.

VCU will not refund money collected in the past.

“They have socked it to a lot of people,” said Joseph Robinson, a Richmond church music director garnished last year for $851 by MCV Physicians for treatment he said happened years ago. “They were just going after anybody they could get.”

VCU joins Yale New Haven Health among the few hospital systems that have forsworn routine patient lawsuits. Such systems still bill for overdue accounts and try to collect the money, but they stop short of seeking the legal right to seize assets.

For its part, UVA has said it will substantially reduce patient lawsuits, seeking court judgments for overdue bills only from families making more than 400% of federal poverty guidelines. That’s income of $86,880 for a family of three.

But its current policy of maintaining old liens and continuing to sue at least some patients makes it more aggressive than VCU.

On the other hand, UVA has made its new, wider financial assistance policy retroactive to July 2017 and in recent months has forgiven $15 million in debt for treatment after that date, said UVA spokesman Eric Swensen.

The system has also stopped wage garnishments “at this time,” he said. UVA has said changes announced so far are a “first step.” A community advisory council meeting monthly since last year will “inform and guide us as we explore changes to our policies,” Swensen said. Recommendations are expected this summer, he added.

UVA Health and affiliates filed 36,000 lawsuits against patients over six years, seeking a total of more than $106 million, KHN found.

Neither VCU nor UVA has responded to repeated queries about exactly how many liens they hold or how much they collect in lien proceeds, garnished wages and bank accounts.

“Compared to the harm it causes for patients, I can’t imagine that the hospitals are getting a significant amount of revenue from these legal actions,” said Fuse Brown, the professor who studies hospital billing.

Hospitals say they see more and more patients who can’t pay, even with insurance, because of stagnating incomes and rising insurance deductibles.

Budget legislation in Virginia’s General Assembly is expected to increase funding for VCU’s and UVA’s indigent care programs as well as update the family-asset test for patients seeking financial assistance, which has not changed since 1985.

As reported last year by KHN, even $3,000 or $4,000 in a 401(k) or other retirement account could bar a patient from financial help. The legislation increases the asset-test threshold to $50,000, not counting a car and a house on less than 4 acres.

Another bill would prohibit the systems from suing or sending bills to collections before they determine whether patients qualify for Medicaid or financial assistance.

“We’re on the right path now,” said Jill Hanken, a health care attorney for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which was behind the bill. “It was very important to put the brakes on these aggressive collection activities and force these hospitals to look more closely at their indigent care policies.”

Health care finance experts continue to criticize both VCU and UVA for what they charge the uninsured before factoring in any financial assistance.

Last year, UVA increased its discount for the uninsured from 20% off list prices to 40%. VCU increased the discount from 25% to 45%. But at those levels, patients still pay far more than the health systems’ costs and far more than what the systems collect from the Medicare program for seniors.

“Until they reduce the amount they are trying to recover by adjusting their charge to what Medicare would have paid, people who owe debts will still face unreasonable demands,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a health law professor at George Washington University.


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Business
'This too shall pass': As stock market continues steep slide for coronavirus, financial advisers say don't panic and sell on fear

While watching the stock market continue its coronavirus-fueled steep decline on Monday, Michael Joyce was reminded of a recurring joke on the popular 1970s television comedy “Sanford & Son.”

“Fred Sanford would grab at his chest and say, ‘This is the big one,’” said Joyce, the president of the Richmond-based financial planning and investment advisory firm Agili.

“I don’t think this is it,” Joyce said of the recent collapse in stock prices. His clients haven’t panicked either, he said.

“Nobody really knows with the coronavirus how it is going to ultimately impact the global economy and corporate earnings,” he said. “But it does appear to me that there has been some panic selling over the past couple of trading days.”

“I do understand it is a scary time,” Joyce said. “For people who have been around a while, they remember other scary times.”

As the coronavirus continued to prompt travel bans and factory shutdowns in affected countries, the Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 7.8% on Monday, its steepest drop since the financial crisis of 2008.

Stocks dropped so fast on Monday that it triggered the first automatic halts in trading in two decades. U.S. stocks are now down 19% from the peak they reached last month, edging close to a bear market, defined as a drop of 20% from the peak.

In this kind of market, investors should remember two things, said Joyce, who has been working in the financial industry for more than 35 years.

“Number one, it pays to be diversified,” he said. “Anybody who has a diversified portfolio has the downside mitigated.”

The second reminder is to keep the long-term outlook in mind. “This will inevitably pass,” he said. “The correction will run its course.”

***

Other financial advisers and market observers in the Richmond area sounded a similar refrain, urging investors to sit tight and resist the urge to flee the market.

For the typical investor, “as tough as it is, probably the best thing is to hold on tight and wait it out,” said Tom Arnold, a professor of finance at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business.

The Richmond-based financial brokerage Davenport & Co. told its clients in a weekly market report that uncertain market conditions are likely to persist for weeks to come as the gross domestic product and earnings growth expectations for 2020 are reined in.

“However, just as markets experienced similar sell-offs from prior epidemics, this too shall pass,” the firm said in its report. “As such, we view this as the time for patient investors to scale back into leading dividend growth companies possessing financial strength as well as differentiated products and services that are now trading at attractive relative valuations.”

Essentially, this market swoon could be a good time to buy stocks that have solid underlying fundamentals and pay good dividends, market watchers said.

“The short answer to whether this is a buying opportunity is yes,” Joyce said.

“It is a buying opportunity for investments that really are priced inexpensively now,” he said. “It is not a question of will the collapse go further but rather has the collapse to date caused securities to be priced right. If they are currently undervalued, it is a good opportunity.”

“But I would hasten to add that it should not come at the expense of diversification,” he said.

The price of oil also plunged nearly 25% Monday after Saudi Arabia indicated it would ramp up production as Russia refused production cutbacks in response to falling demand.

While falling oil prices hurt energy companies, they could help support the economy as declines trickle down into gasoline prices, Joyce said.

“People are going to pay less at the gas pumps, and they will have more disposable income,” he said. “It impacts the whole supply chain and makes things easier to distribute to the consumer.”

***

Dalal Maria Salomon, chief executive officer and founding partner of Salomon & Ludwin LLC, a brokerage practice in Henrico County, also said investors should avoid buying on greed and selling on fear.

After a 10-year bull market, investors “seem to have forgotten risk,” Salomon said.

Government intervention to create record low interest rates and stimulate the economy has forced investors to look elsewhere for both income and returns, driving huge demand for risky assets such as stocks, she said.

“So, now when the markets plummet and are volatile, suddenly, investors remember risk,” Salomon said, adding that risk needs to be addressed beforehand with a plan that protects an individual’s cash flow needs.

“This is a great time for investors to work with their advisers to get advice and guidance,” she said. “There is no one-size-fits-all strategy but having a well-thought-out financial plan that stress tests for markets like this and incorporates risk, cash flow and proper asset allocation is always a smart decision.”

“We have been advising clients for some time now that markets do not go up forever,” Salomon said. “It has been our premise that the reason for a decline is often something unpredictable. So although we had no idea that a virus would be the impetus for the market turmoil — it is not surprising.”

***

The “hype and hysteria” about the coronavirus “is incredible,” said Kent Engelke, chief economic strategist at Capitol Securities Management in Henrico.

“In my view, any type of positive coronavirus news can have a huge snap-back rally” in the markets, Engelke said.

Good quality stocks “should be able to weather the storm, especially those that are paying a dividend,” he said. “Rational minds will prevail but at this juncture fear is overwhelming rational thought.”

Engelke said the Federal Reserve may need to take further action following its surprise decision last week to help bolster the economy by lowering its benchmark interest rate by half a percentage point to a range of 1% to 1.25%.

***

Cutting rates by the Fed can only accomplish so much, said both UR’s Arnold and Manu Gupta, professor and department chair of finance, insurance and real estate at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business.

“I would say cutting interest rates doesn’t seem to be a factor,” Arnold said. “That helps an overall economy that has a credit crunch. That is not what this situation is.”

The most impactful step that government should take at this time to quell the market panic would not be further interventions in the market, but confidence-building steps to protect public health, said Gupta, who said he is not touching his own investment portfolio right now.

“I think at this point, for the financial markets, what needs fixing is that we take good care of this infection,” he said. “What government can do to really help is make sure there are sufficient testing facilities, testing kits and sufficient quarantine facilities. That will put a calm in the mind of investors more than any financial interventions at this time.”


Local
Statute of limitations argument threatens to derail Hanover NAACP lawsuit against Confederate school names

A federal judge on Monday warned lawyers seeking to rename two Hanover County schools honoring Confederate leaders that it might be too late, under a legal technicality.

The lawsuit, which centers on Stonewall Jackson Middle School and Lee-Davis High School, was before Judge Robert Payne for a motions hearing months before the case is set for trial.

Payne cautioned that the suit, in full or part, might not make it that far.

“I think it’s time-barred,” he said Monday, echoing arguments by lawyers for the school system who said the Hanover NAACP’s constitutional claim triggers a two-year statute of limitations on the original naming decisions.

Lee-Davis, named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, opened in 1959 and remained white-only until 1963. Stonewall Jackson Middle School, named for Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, opened in 1968.

“The NAACP cannot justify waiting 50-plus years to file suit,” attorneys for the school system said last month in papers seeking to dismiss the case. “Its delay is inexcusable and unreasonable.”

The legal challenge comes as communities around the South are debating whether the Confederacy should still be honored, particularly after the murder of nine black parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015 and a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.

The NAACP’s lawsuit, filed in August, claims the Hanover school system is violating students’ 14th Amendment rights.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said there’s a general notion in courts around the country that injury claims should be filed as soon as possible so that evidence does not become “stale” or difficult to obtain.

He said constitutional claims should be given special consideration in some cases, however.

“I can understand how they should argue how it applies,” he said. “But I can think of a lot of similar arguments where cases went forward.”

The wrangling follows a grass-roots effort to change the name when a petition drive led to a 5-2 vote by the Hanover School Board in April 2018 to keep the names. One of the School Board members who voted to change the names was not considered for reappointment last spring.

The NAACP argues that the names of the schools continue to violate the First and 14th amendment rights of African American students because they must wear uniforms with school names if they wish to participate in school athletics or clubs. (Lee-Davis teams play as the Confederates; Stonewall Jackson teams are the Rebels.)

“Every time a student is compelled to speak a message with which the student disagrees, the student’s rights are violated, and therefore the statute of limitations does not bar that claim,” NAACP lawyers wrote last month in response to the defense’s motion to dismiss.

“The same is true for the Equal Protection claim: African American children are disparately impacted every day they attend the schools. Neither claim is barred by the statute of limitations.”

During Monday’s hearing, NAACP lawyer Cyril Djoukeng tried to assert that the case is about ongoing harm to students, not strictly about the original naming decisions.

But Payne said it seemed Djoukeng was trying to walk back his statements from a hearing in January.

“You’re going to live with what you say in this courtroom,” Payne told him.

After the hearing Monday, Hanover NAACP President Robert Barnette Jr. and attorneys for the group said they are prepared to appeal if Payne dismisses the case or strikes down part of it.

“We have confidence in our claims and in the fact that the School Board’s claims are wrong and discriminatory,” Djoukeng said, reading from a statement prepared immediately after Monday’s hearing.

A decision from Payne is pending.