On many days our second biggest group of readers is in Richmond. Sorry, folks. Y’all might not like this column (but readers in Staunton might).
Here’s why: I recently wrote a column about how Gov. Glenn Youngkin is missing an opportunity to decentralize state government, decentralize being a verb that Republicans usually like. If Youngkin promoted more remote work for state government, over time a lot of those jobs would probably gravitate out of Richmond and be spread across the state. They probably wouldn’t spread evenly, of course, but they would spread, and that would provide some modest opportunities for localities that aren’t Richmond. Instead of living in Midlothian, someone could live in Marion or Meherrin and still work for the state government. Gate City or Gretna instead of Glen Allen. Salem instead of Short Pump. OK, you get the idea. This would help provide more good-paying jobs in other parts of the state; it might also have some influence in making state government more sensitive to places that aren’t in the state capital. The problem is that while Republicans like to decentralize things, they’re also not as keen as Democrats are on remote work. Democrats, meanwhile, like remote work a lot more but don’t have much of a political base in the parts of the state I’m trying to help so they don’t have much incentive to do this. Anyway, you can go read my original column if you’re into that sort of thing.
That column, though, generated some interesting responses. One former cabinet secretary sent me a list of state offices that he felt could be moved out of Richmond. Honestly, that wasn’t my goal! I was thinking more attrition and evolution over time, not wholesale plundering. Then alert reader Carter Hutchinson of Staunton – a former aide to then-Gov. Ralph Northam – called my attention to a curious little nugget from history: The Virginia Supreme Court once was required to meet in Staunton, Winchester and Wytheville. Now that’s the sort of historical detail that gets my attention.
The ultimate source here is none other than the Supreme Court website itself. The requirement originated under Virginia’s post-Civil War constitution, the one that former abolitionist John Underwood was primarily responsible for, hence its common name as “the Underwood Constitution.” The court’s website says this requirement was in the constitution, although the footnotes suggest it was an act of the General Assembly (also, I can’t find that wording in the actual constitution).
Any discussion of constitutions in Virginia ultimately leads to A.E. Dick Howard, the Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of International Law at the University of Virginia who was executive director of the commission that wrote Virginia’s present constitution and led the campaign for its ratification in 1971. Talking to Howard about the state constitution is akin to being able to talk to James Madison about the U.S. Constitution.
That 1971 constitution replaced the state’s infamous 1902 constitution, which, in turn, replaced the 1870 Underwood constitution. Some more history: The Underwood constitution was a pretty progressive document for its day. It mandated a public school system and electing county boards of supervisors (which previously had been appointed). It extended the franchise to Black men; Underwood himself wanted to extend the vote to women but Virginia wasn’t prepared to go that far. That constitution ushered in an all-too-brief period in which Black Virginians were elected to – and appointed to – state office and other civil rights reforms were instituted. All that was too much for some and in 1902 the state imposed – without a vote – a new constitution that set up the machinery for what we today call Jim Crow. Voting rights were severely restricted, both for Blacks and some whites, particularly in Southwest Virginia, who had the inconvenient tendency of voting Republican in otherwise (conservative) Democratic Virginia. The official school textbooks I had growing up taught us that the 1902 constitution was a fine document that corrected the problems of the Underwood constitution; today we ideally know better. In 1971, Virginia junked that 1902 constitution and moved on.
Anyway, that’s a long digression but we Virginians do love our history, even if a lot of it is unlovable. Howard points out that the 1902 constitution did include a provision for the Supreme Court to meet “at two or more places in the State, as may be fixed by law.” And the place fixed by law was Staunton, so it appears that not only did the 1902 constitution disenfranchise a lot of voters, it also cut Wytheville and Winchester out of the Supreme Court’s travels.
Howard emails me to say: “The Commission on Constitutional Revision, in its 1969 report, proposed omitting that provision as being unnecessary detail. The General Assembly concurred. Thus there is no such provision in the 1971 Constitution.”
And, so, alas, the last session of the Virginia Supreme Court in Staunton was in September 1970.
So why can’t that happen again? While there’s no longer a constitutional requirement that the court meet in “two or more places,” there’s no constitutional prohibition, either. The General Assembly could pass a law to mandate this. Or the court could simply decree this by its own authority. Make Staunton Supreme Again!
Now, I’m not sure what the economic benefit of the court meeting in Staunton for a few days would be, although I’m sure hotels and restaurants didn’t mind having a bunch of lawyers in town. And there’s probably no policy benefit. There’s not usually a regional stake in legal cases the way there often is in politics.
So let’s think bigger. Back in the day – that day being before the Civil War cleaved off the western half of the state – there were periodic attempts to move the state capital out of Richmond and locate it somewhere west of the Blue Ridge (with Staunton often mentioned as the preferred site). In 1852, the House of Delegates even voted 88 to 35 to make that happen. The state Senate, as it often does now, had different ideas.
No, I’m not proposing we move the state capital out of Richmond. I’m not that crazy. But I will float this idea: We’re seeing more and more special sessions of the legislature. What if those were held someplace other than Richmond? Perhaps those who aren’t keen on having so many special sessions might find some merit in this? My goal: Would the General Assembly be more sensitive to, and aware of, the unique policy concerns of Southwest and Southside if the legislators had to actually live here for a while? Of course, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads might say the same thing. Great. That sounds like the makings of a coalition to me. Rotate these special sessions around.
This is not as revolutionary as it may seem. Connecticut had two state capitals – Hartford and New Haven – up until 1875 when Hartford finally won out. Five of India’s 28 states have two (and in one case, three) capitals. Those are often divided between a summer capital and a winter capital. We don’t have the same climatological range that those Indian states do, but no one can say this won’t work when five Indian states have already figured out how to make it work. The South American nation of Bolivia has two national capitals — the president and legislature are in La Paz, the Supreme Court in Sucre, the country’s colonial capital. That would be akin to Virignia having the Supreme Court still sit in Williamsburg. South Africa has three capitals — the president is in Pretoria, the legislature is in Cape Town, the judiciary is in Bloemfontein. Now there’s a separation of powers! In all, there 12 countries that in some way have multiple capitals, either officially or otherwise.
Republican legislators, who dominate Southwest and Southside, ought to be at the forefront of making this happen. Democrats have less incentive but if the trade-off is one special session in McLean and the next one in Martinsville, I’m fine with that. Here’s another way to do it: The General Assembly could decide to hold its special sessions at Virginia community colleges as a way to emphasize the importance of those schools. With 23 community colleges, it’ll take a while for the legislature to work its way around but that would guarantee some geographical diversity, from Eastern Shore to Mountain Empire. Surely they must all have some room big enough, right?
Finally, we must turn to the executive branch of state government. Four states own multiple residences for their governors. Alabama and New Jersey both maintain beach houses for their governors; Michigan has a “governor’s summer residence” on Mackinac Island. I’m less concerned with the chief executive’s comfort and more concerned about his – or, someday, her – views on policy. And that leads me to the fourth state with two governor’s mansions: North Carolina. In 1964, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce donated a 6,000-square-foot mansion to the state as the Governor’s Western Residence in hopes that governors would spend more time in – and attention to – the western part of the state. Hmm, that sounds familiar. Whether that’s worked out the way the chamber intended is, I suppose, a matter of opinion. The governor doesn’t actually decamp there to live but does occasionally use it for meetings. When North Carolina was wooing the Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery to a possible Asheville location, then-Gov. Pat McCrory entertained corporate officials at the western residence. (Deschutes wound up picking Roanoke instead but then the market changed and the company has yet to build anything.)
Now, giving the governor a big fancy house in this part of the state doesn’t do much unless the governor actually stays there for more than a weekend. Can we require that? The state constitution specifies the governor “reside at the seat of government” but doesn’t specify how many days of the year count as residence. When Clint Miller was seeking the Republican nomination for governor back in 1993, he proposed to take the governor’s office on the road. He talked up how the new-fangled technology of fax machines would make that possible. If it was possible in 1993, it’s even more possible now. Could we persuade our governor to become, in effect, a remote worker for at least part of the year? There seems to be a market opportunity here for some enterprising candidate for governor to revive and revise Miller’s 1993 campaign pledge.
Virginia’s often not much on innovation. We all know the old joke about how many Virginians it takes to change a light bulb – five. One to change the bulb and four to talk about how much better the old one was. So I’m not proposing anything new here. I’m simply proposing we adopt some variation of what Virginia’s Supreme Court did for about a century. This isn’t radical; it’s tradition.