Virginia’s nonstop political crisis could enter a new phase Monday when a Democratic lawmaker tries to start impeachment proceedings against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax over two allegations of sexual assault.
The General Assembly last considered impeachment in the 1940s, when lawmakers tried to remove a judge. But there are no examples of an executive branch officeholder being impeached in the modern era, adding to the procedural and legal uncertainty surrounding Fairfax’s case if he resists bipartisan calls to resign.
It’s not clear if a majority of Republicans and Democrats in the House of Delegates — the body empowered to begin impeachments — would support such a process. If they did, it could be days or weeks before a final vote on Fairfax’s fate.
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, plans to introduce a resolution in the House that would allow for an investigation into the allegations, which Fairfax has vigorously denied. The Virginia Constitution allows impeachment for “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor.”
“There’s no question that violent sexual assault clearly qualifies as a high crime,” Hope said at a news conference Friday night.
Hope’s resolution, which he shared with Democratic colleagues Sunday afternoon, calls for the House Courts of Justice Committee to hold hearings on the Fairfax allegations and issue a report on whether he should be impeached.
“It is not impeachment,” Hope said in an email to his caucus. “It is a process to investigate whether the Courts Committee would recommend impeachment.”
Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson — the women who have come forward with accusations against Fairfax — have both said they’re willing to testify before the General Assembly.
Tyson has accused Fairfax of assaulting her in a Boston hotel room in 2004. Watson, who came forward Friday, has alleged Fairfax raped her in 2000 at Duke University.
Fairfax has said both encounters were consensual and has refused to step down in the face of what he has called a “vicious and coordinated smear campaign.”
Fairfax has called for the FBI to investigate the allegations against him, though it’s not clear the agency would have jurisdiction to get involved.
In a statement Sunday, Fairfax’s office said the lieutenant governor is still exploring options for how such an investigation could be performed and expressed skepticism about a legislative probe.
“He believes that an inherently political process is not the most likely path for learning the truth,” said Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke. “The lieutenant governor is confident in the truth that will emerge from an independent impartial investigation.”
Virginia State Police would not have the authority to investigate alleged crimes that took place in North Carolina and Massachusetts. Tyson’s legal team has said she will not file a criminal complaint with Boston authorities. Watson’s attorneys have said she could pursue a criminal prosecution in North Carolina.
Though the House Democratic Caucus and Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, called for Fairfax to resign after the emergence of a second allegation Friday night, they have not indicated whether they’ll back Hope’s call for impeachment proceedings.
Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, the House Democrats’ parliamentarian, said House Republicans, who have a 51-48 majority, would have to go along in order for any investigation to occur.
“Even if all the Democrats get behind it, unless the leadership decides they want it to go forward, it’s not going to happen,” Simon said.
Cox’s office could not be reached for comment Sunday.
If the House passed articles of impeachment by a majority vote, the Senate would have to affirm them by a two-thirds vote.
With three simultaneous scandals running the risk of alienating two of their core constituencies — African-Americans and women — there’s no easy path forward for Democrats. A vote to impeach Fairfax would mean the ouster of the only African-American elected to statewide office, and would come as Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both white, appear to be clinging to their offices despite admitting to wearing blackface as young men.
Of the three men, Fairfax is the only one who stands accused of criminal conduct. He’s also the only one who has flatly denied guilt.
President Donald Trump seemed to reference that dynamic in a tweet posted Sunday morning.
“African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!” the president said, following up on an earlier post declaring Virginia back in play for Republicans in 2020.
Some lawmakers feel the impeachment process is premature, regardless of race.
Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, said she’s opposed to Hope’s resolution. Fairfax has received “no due process,” Aird said, and she doesn’t believe the allegations alone would qualify as grounds for impeachment.
“Even if you remove Justin from the equation, this is about the dangerous precedent this sets for any elected official,” Aird said.
Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, said he thinks it would be unwise for the Senate to take any action against the lieutenant governor in the final two weeks of the legislative session.
“We put ourselves in peril if we ruin someone’s career and life for something that later turns out to be not founded,” Hanger said. “They are only accusations now.”