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Spring 2020 Capital News Service

‘The end is in sight’: ERA moves closer to ratification in Virginia

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By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

ERA introduced

RICHMOND, Va. -- Resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment swiftly passed the General Assembly Wednesday. The House version passed 59-41 and the Senate bill cleared with a 28-12 vote. The next step will be for each resolution to pass the other chamber, sometime in February.

“As the House sponsor of the bill, it is an honor to lead the effort in this historic moment for women,” said Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, in a released statement. “This vote demonstrates how greater female representation in government can significantly improve the lives of women across the country. We are here and will be heard.”

VAratifyERA, a campaign focused on the state’s ratification tweeted shortly after passage of the resolutions: “The end is in sight!”

First lady Pam Northam and daughter Aubrey Northam appeared at the House gallery to witness the moment. They joined a crowd of mostly women who cheered loudly when the measure passed.

The governor and Democratic legislators have championed the ERA as a legislative priority, promising this year the amendment wouldn’t die in the House as it has in past years.

“Today is an absolutely historic day for our Commonwealth and a major milestone in the fight for equality in this nation,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a statement.  “Women in America deserve to have equality guaranteed in the Constitution and Virginians should be proud that we will be the state that makes it happen.”

Though Virginia passage of the ERA is seen as a symbol of the new Democratic leadership, the effort may be too late. The Department of Justice announced last week that the ERA can no longer be ratified because its deadline expired decades ago.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel agreed that the deadline cannot be revived.

“We conclude that Congress had the constitutional authority to impose a deadline on the ratification of the ERA, and because that deadline has expired, the ERA Resolution is no longer pending before the states,” Engel said.

Carroll Foy said in an interview last week that she believes the DOJ legal counsel’s opinion will not stop the ERA’s progress.

“I am more than confident that this is just another effort by people who want to stop progress and who don't believe in women's equality,” Carroll Foy said. “This is another one of their concerted efforts to deny us fundamental rights and equal protections. But the time has come; we are unrelenting. We will not be deterred, and we will have our full constitutional equality.”

The amendment seeks to guarantee equal rights in the U.S. Constitution regardless of sex. It passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. Efforts to ratify the ERA gained momentum in recent years when it passed in Nevada and Illinois.

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Five states --Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota -- have stated their intent to rescind their ratification, which ERA opponents say could prevent it from being added to the constitution, according to VAratifyERA. The ERA organization said that “Article V of the Constitution authorizes states to ratify amendments but does not give states the power to rescind their ratification.” The organization points out that the 14th, 15th and 19th amendments were added to the Constitution despite some state efforts to rescind ratification.

Herring said that he is “preparing to take any steps necessary to ensure that Virginia is recognized as the 38th ratifying state, that the will of Virginians is carried out, and that the ERA is added to our Constitution, as it should be.”

Female-led groups united at the General Assembly last week, urging representatives not to pass legislation ratifying the ERA. Groups such as The Family Foundation of Virginia, Eagle Forum, Students For Life of America and Concerned Women for America said they oppose ERA ratification because the amendment does not explicitly support women’s equality.

“The ERA does not put women in the Constitution,” said Anne Schlafly Cori, chairman of Eagle Forum, a conservative and pro-family group. “It puts sex in the Constitution, and sex has a lot of different definitions.”

President of the Virginia chapter of the The Family Foundation Victoria Cobb believe women have already achieved equality.

“Today I am different than men and yet equal under the U.S. Constitution, and Virginia Constitution and Virginia laws,” Cobb said.

A statement released last week by the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency that certifies ratification of amendments, indicated that the agency will follow DOJ guiERA its about timedance that the deadline to ratify has passed "unless otherwise directed by a final court order."

Still, enthusiasm was palpable Wednesday at the State Capitol.

“The people of Virginia spoke last November, voting a record number of women into the House of Delegates and asking us to ratify the ERA,” said Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring in a released statement. “It is inspiring to see the amendment finally be considered, voted on, and passed – long-awaited recognition that women deserve.”

Marijuana reform advocates divided between decriminalization or legalization

By Emma Gauthier, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Advocates dressed in black stood Wednesday at the base of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial to voice their support of marijuana legalization, repeating a variation of, “the time is now,” in each of their statements. 

Participants dressed in black “in order to stand in solidarity with the black and brown bodies that have been criminalized for decades here in the commonwealth,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, co-founder of Marijuana Justice, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization that aims to educate people on the history of cannabis criminalization in the U.S. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, along with Marijuana Justice and RISE for Youth, a campaign committed to promoting alternatives to youth incarceration, held a press conference promoting House Bill 1507, patroned by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William. 

“Lean on your legislators and make sure that they understand the effort to legalize marijuana is here and we’re bringing it to your front door because now is the time to fully have criminal justice reform in a meaningful way,” Carroll Foy said. 

The bill wants to exclude marijuana from a list of controlled substances that are illegal to possess. Under current law, less than half an ounce of marijuana is considered a class one misdemeanor.

A “first offender’s rule” is offered on first convictions in lieu of class one misdemeanor penalties. The rule includes probation, drug testing and community service. Subsequent convictions are punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $2,500.

Possession of more than half an ounce of marijuana is by law considered an intent to distribute and is charged as a felony, punishable by one to 10 years in prison. 

Capital News Service reported that in 2018, the only offenses more common than marijuana possession were traffic-related, such as speeding or reckless driving. Marijuana arrests that year were at their highest level in at least 20 years, with nearly 29,000 arrests. 

“Arrests for marijuana possession are significantly higher for blacks and people of color, even though data has shown that there is no higher rate usage with people of color than there are with white people,” said Del. Joshua Cole, D-Stafford, chief co-patron of HB 1507. “But yet we are constantly the ones that are taking the brunt of this.” 

Virginia State Police arrested more white people (25,306) for drug violations in 2018 than African Americans (20,712). While African Americans make up 19% of Virginia’s population, they consisted of nearly half of all marijuana convictions in 2018, according to a Capital News Service analysis of court records. Carroll Foy said that African Americans are three times more likely than any other race to be stopped, arrested and convicted for possession of marijuana. 

Nine other bills have been introduced this session relating to the possession of marijuana. Some propose legalization, while others propose decriminalization. Although the terms are used interchangeably at times, the two carry dramatically different meanings. 

Bills similar to HB 1507, like HB 87 and HB 269, propose the legalization of marijuana, which would lift existing laws that prohibit possession of the substance. 

Senate Bill 2, patroned by Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, HB 972, patroned by Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and several other bills propose the decriminalization of marijuana. These bills would impose a $50 fee for consuming or possessing marijuna. Ebbin’s bill would raise the threshold amount of marijuana subject to distribution or possession with intent to distribute from one-half ounce to one ounce. Herring’s bill would impose a $250 fee if the offender was consuming marijuana in public. However, the drug would remain illegal.

The ACLU said last week at a press conference that decriminalization and civil offenses still hold and create a number of issues — someone who wants to contest the citation would have to do so without a lawyer, and those who cannot afford to pay upfront would have to go to court, which usually includes more costs and fees. The group instead wants to see a full repeal of the prohibition on marijuana.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring took part in a cannabis conference Sunday and voiced his support for marijuana reform. 

“It's clear time for cannabis reform has come,” Herring said. “Justice demands it, Virginians are demanding it, and I’m going to make sure we get it done.”

Ashna Khanna, legislative director of the ACLU of Virginia, said they have confirmed Herring’s support of HB 1507. The organization, along with 11 others, sent a letter to Gov. Ralph Northam requesting support of legislation to legalize marijuana and hope that he will be open to meeting with them soon.

Breakfast and a Prayer Before 2020 General Assembly Convenes

By Conor Lobb, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia legislators called for respect and civility across the aisle just hours ahead of the 2020 Virginia General Assembly session. 

Several prominent figures spoke at the 54th Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast held Wednesday at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, including Gov. Ralph Northam, Chief Judge Roger Gregory of the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. The Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast is an annual gathering for Virginia politicians and community members to share a meal and prayers.

Many of the speakers reflected on the need for compassion and understanding toward one another and to consider the impact the legislation proposed this session will have on Virginians. Qarni said that the upcoming session will have contentious moments, but called on citizens and legislators not to “demonize” one another or rush to conclusions. He said that the country is deeply divided. 

“We are worried about war. We are worried about impeachment. We are worried about the future,” Qarni said in a speech shared with CNS after the event. “The world is a scary place right now. We are plagued with fears. But we must have faith, not just in our creator but in each other.” 

Northam spoke last, urging the freshman and veteran legislators present to remember that the General Assembly is built on relationships and that public visibility and scrutiny of this legislative session will be significant. 

“How we speak of and to each other will be heard well beyond the gates of Capitol Square,” Northam said.

Gregory preceded Northam with a similar sentiment, placing the responsibility for civility in the hands of the politicians.

 “Legislators,” Gregory said, “You have a big job and an important job.” 

 The General Assembly convened at noon on Wednesday. This session marks the first time in more than two decades that Democrats have control over the General Assembly and the governorship. Democratic leaders announced Tuesday an 11-point, legislative “Virginia 2020 Plan” that includes gun control measures, minimum wage increase, LGBT protections and increased education spending.

“We are presenting an agenda that is different from every previous General Assembly session,” Northam said in a press release unveiling the agenda. “It’s more forward looking than ever before, and it reflects what Virginians sent us here to do.”

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