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Constitutional challenge to statute is ‘actual controversy’

Where appellant inmate challenged a statute’s constitutionality, the trial court erred by ruling appellant did not present an “actual controversy” to the court.

Background

“Edwards, an inmate, was charged under Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) Operating Procedure (‘OP’) 861.1 for violating disciplinary offense code 213, ‘failing to follow institutional count procedures or interfering with count.’

“Edwards then refused to appear at his disciplinary hearing[.] … Under OP 861.1, refusal to appear ‘shall be considered an admission of guilt,’ and accordingly Edwards was found guilty and received a $5 penalty. …

“Edwards filed a motion for declaratory judgment in the Circuit Court of Roanoke County requesting, inter alia, that Code § 53.1-25 and OP 861.1 be declared facially unconstitutional and void ab initio in violation of ‘Virginia Constitution Article 3, Section I – ‘Separation of Power Clause.’ …

“[T]he Commonwealth filed a plea in bar arguing that declaratory judgment was barred by sovereign immunity and Edwards’ failure to present an ‘actual controversy’ pursuant to Code § 8.01-184.

“Edwards filed his ‘Response and Objection’ to the Commonwealth’s plea in bar … arguing, in part, that our Supreme Court, in Daniels v. Mobley, 285 Va. 402, 407 (2013), held that challenges to the constitutionality of a statute present an ‘actual controversy.’

“The circuit court, pursuant to Code § 8.01-695, granted the Commonwealth’s plea in bar and motion to dismiss with prejudice based on the record without a hearing[.] …

“The circuit court determined Edwards failed to present an ‘actual controversy’ within the scope of Code § 8.01-184 rendering his request not justiciable. In addition, the circuit court noted that to the extent that Edwards was attempting to challenge the penalty imposed for the infraction, other adequate legal remedies existed rendering declaratory relief inappropriate.

“The circuit court did not, however, address Edwards’ argument under Daniels. Edwards then timely filed this appeal.”

Analysis

“Edwards argues that he presented the circuit court with an ‘actual controversy’ and that his declaratory judgment action is an appropriate means by which to pursue his constitutional challenges to Code § 53.1-25 and OP 861.1. We agree.

“As such, we reverse the judgment of the circuit court and remand for further proceedings only on the merits of Edwards’ separation of powers constitutional challenge to Code § 53.1-25 and OP 861.1. …

“[A] circuit court cannot acquire jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment action unless the proceeding involves an actual adjudication of rights.’ Daniels, 285 Va. at 408. …

“For an actual, justiciable controversy to exist, a circuit court must be able to render specific relief affecting plaintiff’s rights. … Therefore, when the ‘actual objective in the declaratory judgment proceeding is a determination of a disputed issue rather than an adjudication of the parties’ rights,’ the case is not one for declaratory judgment.”

Ruling

“Edwards’ separation of powers constitutional challenge of Code § 53.1-25 and OP 861.1 presents an actual controversy for the circuit court to decide. …

“Although the circuit court may have deemed the merits of Edwards’ claim baseless, it was still error for the circuit court to dismiss his motion with prejudice based upon the reasoning that he did not present an ‘actual controversy.’

“Therefore, as to Edwards’ separation of powers constitutional challenge alone, we reverse and remand to the circuit court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.”

Reversed and remanded.

Edwards v. Commonwealth, Record No. 0937-22-3, April 11, 2023. CAV (unpublished opinion) (White). From the Circuit Court of Roanoke County (Dorsey. Derrick A. Edwards, pro se. No brief or argument for appellee. VLW 023-7-139, 4 pp.

VLW 023-7-139

Virginia Lawyers Weekly