LYNCHBURG, Va. (CN) - A federal judge in Virginia denied judgment Thursday for two local electoral board members accused of ousting a city's general registrar over her political beliefs.
Christine Gibbons was appointed director of elections and general registrar by a unanimous, bipartisan vote of the Lynchburg Electoral Board in 2018. The city of Lynchburg in central Virginia has an electoral board of three members, appointed by the chief judge of the Lynchburg Circuit Court on the recommendations of local committees of the city's two major political parties.
She served until the expiration of her term in June 2023 when two recently appointed board members and outspoken Republicans, Betty Ann Gibbs, and Steven Troxel, voted not to reappoint her.
Gibbs served as a poll worker in 2016 and 2017 in Campbell County, where she was accused of obstructing the election process in her precinct on two occasions by closing the electronic poll books during the day while elections were still in process. In January 2019, Wendell Walker, then-chair of the Lynchburg Republican City Committee, withdrew Gibbs' nomination to the Lynchburg Electoral Board because of these and other misconduct she had engaged in during elections.
Gibbs hassled Gibbons in the weeks leading to the 2020 presidential election, sitting in the registrar's office on Oct. 7 for four hours, closely watching the office's staff to intimidate them, according to court documents.
Walker's successor Eric Harrison filed a petition for writ of mandamus in Lynchburg City Circuit Court against Gibbons in her official capacity as general registrar on Oct. 30, prompting Gibbs to take to Facebook and post, "When the electoral board, registrar, and deputy registrar are removed, things will change. I'm glad City Council has been alerted. #DraintheLynchburgSwamp."
The circuit court denied the writ with prejudice. Gibbs, along with a busload of Lynchburg Republicans, participated in the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021. Gibbs said in a quote to a newspaper that she hoped the number of participants would send a message to elected officials that they would not sit back and watch the election being stolen.
In the 2021 statewide general election, the Lynchburg Republican City Committee placed its chair, Veronica Bratton, and Gibbs in charge of designating authorized representatives to watch the polls for supposed voter fraud.
"At the close of the polls at that same election, Republican authorized representatives asked election officials at numerous precincts to sign a form, which these authorized representatives had brought with them to the polls, on which they had written total votes-cast numbers by candidate from the voting tabulation machines," Gibbons'complaintstates. "Authorized representatives became belligerent when election officials declined to sign these documents."
According to Gibbons, multiple confrontations between Republicans and election officials broke out on election night in 2021, leading to three officials' resignations over the harassment and a church declining to serve as a polling location any longer.
Harris appointed Gibbs to the board in January 2022. Gibbons claims Gibbs would only speak with fellow Republicans and was particularly hostile to Black employees.
At the March 20, 2023, board meeting, the board's two Republican members, Gibbs and Troxel, voted to open Gibbons' general registrar position to new applicants. Daniel Pense, a former corporate information technology professional, was appointed after two other openly Republican candidates interviewed for the nonpartisan position.
"Mr. Pense makes no secret of his membership in the Republican Party, unlike Ms. Gibbons, who on principle has not disclosed her party of registration or her candidate preferences to the public, to her staff, or even to her counsel in this case, and steers assiduously clear of partisan politics in all her public appearances and professional interactions," Gibbons says in her brief.
Gibbons filed suit, claiming Gibbs and Troxel violated her freedom of expression and political association protected by the First Amendment by not reappointing her due to political animus in their official capacities. She also sued them in their personal capacities claiming emotional distress.
Gibbs and Troxel filed a motion for judgment arguing the 11th Amendment bars the personal-capacity claims because in the Commonwealth of Virginia the board is the real party in interest.
U.S. District Judge Robert S. Ballou, a Joe Biden appointee, pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling inHafer v. Melo,which established that the 11th Amendment does not insulate a state official from a personal-capacity suit because they come to court as an individual.
"I conclude that the complaint adequately asserts a claim under 1983 against Gibbs and Troxel in their personal capacities and that the defendants - not the Commonwealth - are the real parties in interest," Ballou wrote.
Attorneys representing the parties did not respond to requests for comment.
Source: Courthouse News Service