The 17th state Senate District. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
The 17th state Senate District. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

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A Richmond Circuit Court judge on Wednesday directed the Virginia Department of Elections to rescind its decision to change the nomination method for Republican candidates in the newly created 17th state Senate district from a primary to a party-run convention. 

With her ruling, Judge Claire Cardwell granted a motion by the chairman of the district’s Republican Legislative Committee for an emergency injunction that sought to order the department to place the names of the two candidates seeking the GOP nomination on a primary ballot by the April 6 deadline.

Dawn Jones had filed the motion earlier this month after state election officials changed the nomination method from a state-run primary to a convention. She also filed a lawsuit against the department and the State Board of Elections, alleging that the agencies meddled in internal party affairs and made the change under pressure from Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares after initially confirming the district committee’s decision to settle the nomination contest during a primary. 

But Cal Brown, an assistant attorney general who argued on behalf of the state, in a court hearing on Monday tried to paint Jones as a “low-level party official who has gone rogue” and who lacked the authority to make critical decisions — such as determining the method of nomination in the district. “All she has is procedural responsibilities. She is just the messenger,” Brown told the judge. 

Brown also argued that Jones lacked the standing to certify the primary method and that the court “has no jurisdiction over this case.”

But in her ruling issued Wednesday, Cardwell found that Jones had “sufficient interest in the subject matter of this case” and that it was undisputed that she was the “proper chairperson designated to give notice” for the 17th District.

“Upon such receipt of such facially valid notice, the SBR [State Board of Elections] was required to order the method of nomination chosen. The statute, by its terms, does not allow the commonwealth to investigate further in any capacity,” Cardwell wrote. To do so, she added, would “undermine the statutory wall that exists between the government and the workings of the political parties of the commonwealth.”

Rick Boyer, the Lynchburg attorney who filed the suit on the behalf of Jones, said in an email Wednesday that the judge came down on the right side of the dispute.

“The judge ruled that Mrs. Jones was correct on every important legal point,” he said. “She ruled that Mrs. Jones, as chairman of the LDC [Legislative District Committee], was the person authorized to give notice to the State Board of Elections and to have that notice honored, so she had standing.”

Boyer added that Cardwell ruled that a Virginia statute gives political parties, not the government, the right to determine what their internal processes are and who their “duly constituted authorities” are.

“She ruled that once Mrs. Jones, as the chairman of the LDC, certified a primary, it was a ministerial, non-discretionary duty for the State Board of Elections to put the election on the primary ballot. And she ruled that all the intra-party politics obfuscates the actual issue presented to the court, which is if proper notice was given was such notice honored,” Boyer said.

The 17th District, which was approved by the Virginia Supreme Court in December 2021, includes all of Isle of Wight, Southampton, Greenville and Brunswick counties, the cities of Suffolk, Franklin and Emporia, and parts of Portsmouth and Dinwiddie County. 

Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk. Courtesy of Brewer.
Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk. Courtesy of Brewer.

The two Republicans seeking their party’s nomination are Hermie Sadler, a former NASCAR driver and entrepreneur from Emporia, and Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, who announced in early 2022 that she would retire from her House of Delegates seat to run for the state Senate.

Jones alleges that Youngkin strong-armed election officials into ordering a convention because he believes that Brewer — the candidate he considers to be more electable in the general election — would have a better chance at winning at a party-run nomination contest that the department scheduled for June 3 at Paul D. Camp Community College in Franklin.

Hermie Sadler. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

Jones is basing her suit on a state law mandating that during an election year, each district committee must certify to the State Board of Elections by March 1 that it has selected a particular nomination method. Under the law, the committee’s decision is legally binding and cannot be changed by the state government. 

The paperwork that Jones submitted to the court showed that the Department of Elections ordered a primary election on March 9. At Monday’s hearing, Carey Allen, a senior political adviser for Sadler, testified that she talked to Susan Beals, the commissioner of the Department of Elections, to confirm the nomination method. “She told me that she had selected a primary, and she sent a writ that evening,” Allen said.

But Beals rescinded the primary decision the next day without offering an explanation, ordering a convention. Allen testified that after she was notified, she tried to call Beals twice, “but it went to voicemail both times.”

Allen added that she later learned from Chris Marston, a Republican attorney specializing in election law, that Beals “had had a bad day” after receiving communications from Jeff Goettman, Youngkin’s chief of staff, insisting she rescind the primary decision. 

Brown, the assistant attorney general, told the court that the 17th District legislative committee had initially voted at a meeting in December to hold a convention. He noted that on Feb. 25, Jones had been removed from the Suffolk Republican Committee because the state party had deemed it defunct — a decision that Jones appealed last week.

Rich Anderson, the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, submitted an affidavit to the court last week stating that by certifying the primary as the district’s nomination method, Jones had acted “ultra vires” — a Latin phrase used in law to describe an act which requires legal authority but is done without it — and then “purported to notify the Department of Elections that the LDC had chosen a primary.”

However, Boyer, Jones’ attorney, argued that under state law the Department of Elections and the State Board of Elections have a “non-discretionary role” that mandates they abide by the committee’s decision, and that the same applies to Anderson. “The state party chairman has no authority to weigh in. The statute doesn’t allow the RPV chair veto power,” Boyer said. “The only chairman who has any authority in this matter is Mrs. Jones.”

Cardwell, in her ruling, found that the state’s attempt to present “a myriad of intra-party politics obfuscates the actual issue” presented to the court, “which is if proper notice was given, was such notice honored?” 

Cardwell concluded that by failing to order a primary for Senate District 17, state election officials “violated their ministerial duty” requiring them to do so. 

Brewer, who supported the department’s move to rescind the primary nomination process, said in an email Wednesday that “no matter the method of nomination, I am confident that I will be victorious.” 

Brewer was first elected to the 64th House of Delegates district in 2017, after the incumbent, Del. Rich Morris, opted to not seek reelection. “I am the only proven, battle-tested conservative running for the 17th Senate district,” she said in the email. “I have always backed the Blue, I’ve fought to protect life, and stood cemented for our 2nd Amendment Rights. I’ve fought for my constituents every day.”

Sadler, in a brief phone interview, congratulated Jones on a favorable ruling. 

“I’m really happy for Dawn Jones, because she decided to stand up and fight for transparency and for what is right,” Sadler said. 

“My hope is that now all of the confusion and misinformation about the nomination process is out of the way,” he added. “My campaign is ready to spend all our time and efforts on the June 20 primary, and we look forward to taking our message to voters in the entire district.” 

Boyer, the Lynchburg attorney, said Wednesday that now that the court has ruled on the emergency injunction, he will discuss the next steps with Jones. 

“The suit is still at this point live and awaiting a full trial on the merits,” Boyer said. “We will have to determine whether to move forward, and I look forward to discovery and a full hearing of those claims.”  

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at