Unmarried Domestic Violence Victims Threatened by Ballot Question #1; Waddell and Nachman Urge NO Vote
(Richmond, Virginia) Domestic violence advocates, survivors and defense counsel agreed at a press conference today in Richmond that the language of Ballot Question #1 could well threaten enforcement of Virginia’s domestic violence laws against perpetrators in unmarried relationships and deny victims, their families and their employers of the protections currently offered.
Speaking at the press conference by telephone, Alexandria Ruden, a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, Ohio, said similar language in Ohio’s constitution had thrown unmarried domestic violence victims into a legal limbo that has now gone on for 2 years since passage of Ohio’s amendment.
In describing the experience in Ohio, Ms. Ruden said:
“Unlike Ohio, Virginia voters have been alerted to the very serious adverse potential consequences of this proposed amendment well before the election. Our voters didn’t have adequate time to get fully informed before they voted. The consequence has been that police, prosecutors and victims have been in a state of perpetual confusion since the amendment passed. The litigation has snowballed from one case to 45-60 cases and, until the Supreme Court of Ohio resolves the issue, victims in 10 to 12 counties are without coverage because of court decisions holding the law unconstitutional. The situation has been complicated by the fact that those who dismissed concerns about the impact of the Ohio amendment on unmarried couples as “absurd” have now joined unmarried defendants appealing their convictions in arguing before the Ohio Supreme Court that the plain language of the amendment prohibits its application to unmarried couples. “
Ms. Ruden said that marriage amendment advocates changed their position on the issue because of concerns about the consequences and precedent of creating an exception to the constitutional language for domestic violence victims.
Stacy Ruble, Domestic Violence Advocacy Coordinator for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (VSDVAA), highlighted the concerns of programs working with the thousands of unmarried victims of domestic abuse in Virginia who seek services every year. “We understand that there are conflicting legal opinions about what the constitutional amendment means or how judges are likely to interpret it. What we know, however, is that, if this amendment passes, it is beyond question that there will be an extended period of legal uncertainty that will confuse police about the application of our pro-arrest laws to unmarried perpetrators, and cause magistrates and judges to question whether they have the authority to issue protective orders in such cases. This can be avoided completely if the amendment is defeated. We do not believe that there is a reason to take any risk that unmarried domestic violence victims will be denied these essential protections.”
Shani Cotton, a domestic abuse survivor and Sexual Assault Services Coordinator for VSDVAA, focused on the difficulty the public and victims have in understanding the law as it is. She pointed out that those affected by any future challenges to the validity of the statute will include the children in such relationships. Ms. Cotton said that the hotline she often answers receives 4,000 calls per month from victims, their families and friends seeking information about how to get services. “Passage of this amendment would affect our ability to provide consistent information statewide since the law could be unevenly applied for some period into the future,” she said with concern.
Cathy Maxfield Coleman, a domestic abuse survivor from York County and Domestic Violence Outreadh Coordinator for VSDVAA, described her experience as an unmarried victim back in 1989 before the current Virginia law was in place. Ms. Coleman said that back then police and the judicial system did not have the tools now in place to protect victims, including emergency protective orders, transportation for her and her children to a safe place, and the pro-arrest policy. She said “this amendment will set us back 20 years and will send a message that some victims don’t deserve to be protected. All Virginians have the right to be safe.”
In a communication to Ms. Ruble the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office said their “office concurs in the concern that the passage of the amendment threatens protections that are currently offered to victims of domestic violence regardless of their marital status.”
John B. Russell, a former Assistant US Attorney and Senior Assistant Attorney General of Virginia who currently serves as the chair of the criminal law section of the Virginia Bar Association, said that defense attorneys in Virginia will have an “ethical obligation” to raise a constitutional challenge in cases involving unmarried perpetrators.
James Nachman, a criminal defense attorney practicing daily in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts, echoed Mr. Russell’s view that defense attorneys would be ethically obligated to raise a constitutional claim and said that the amendment would have “a significant negative effect on people cohabiting.” “It is unnecessary to wreak such havoc with this broad and far-reaching amendment, ” Nachman added, saying he would be voting no and urging voters to reject the amendment.
Delegate Katherine Waddell (I Richmond City) spoke of a friend who was stabbed to death in front of her children by their father: “Even with the laws presently on the books in Virginia, we were unable to protect this young woman; we were unable to prevent this domestic brutality. We should be working to strengthen our laws to prevent domestic violence, not passing amendments that might weaken the laws already on the books.” She said that she would be voting no on Ballot Question #1 and joined Mr. Nachman in urging alll Virginians to vote No on November 7th.