Residents of Petersburg have been collecting signatures to get two members of the City Council — Mayor Samuel Parham and former mayor Howard Myers — kicked off it. The petitioners have a long list of grievances, and now that they have the signatures, they are taking their case to court.
Which is a trifle odd. In Virginia, voters cannot directly recall an elected official. Instead, they can urge a judge to do so. The judge then conducts what amounts to a trial and delivers a verdict.
Which is a trifle problematic. Because, as Prince William Del. Richard Anderson has pointed out, that leaves the judge in the position of having to decide whether to overturn the outcome of a democratic election. Judges are understandably hesitant to do such a thing, as they should be.
Yet if they don’t, then they are left in the position of seeming to tacitly endorse behavior bad enough to inspire a recall movement. That’s not so good, either.
This year Anderson introduced legislation (since defeated) that would shift the responsibility: If enough signatures are gathered, a judge would have to order a recall election. Then the voters could decide whether, on further consideration, they made a bad mistake the first go-around. If they vote someone out of office, a special election to fill the vacancy would follow.
Requiring a judge, rather than the public, to make the final call has its merits. It (presumably) allows for a more dispassionate look at the circumstances and prevents a tide of groupthink from overwhelming a decent public servant who makes a tough call. Opponents of Anderson’s bill wonder what might happen if, say, an official votes for an unpopular but necessary tax increase.
That’s a fair point, but recent history suggests it raises unlikely concerns. The recall petitions that have arisen around Virginia lately deal with employee disputes and employment decisions and the alleged violation of open-meeting rules. An official who makes unpopular policy choices is more likely to face the music at the next regularly scheduled election. Collecting signatures for a recall takes work, after all.
No system is perfect. The current one has flaws and the one proposed by Anderson has flaws as well. But in electoral matters it seems preferable to err on the side of public choice rather than judicial fiat. If a popular recall turns out for the worst, at least the voters would have nobody to blame but themselves.