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Man Bites Dog: Public Official Sues Taxpayers

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You can only call it a “man bites dog” kind of story. Falls Church Commissioner of the Revenue Tom Clinton is suing taxpayers. Why would a public official sue citizens?  What could he possibly want from them? As a revenue collecting official, he already has their money. But he wants one thing more, and apparently it is very precious to him; he wants to be left alone.
As the year came to an end, Commissioner Clinton filed suit against several Fairfax County residents and property owners. The basis for his case was that they had exhibited the temerity to write him a letter, a polite letter – asking him to do his job.
Part of that job, under Virginia law, is to correct improper tax assessments. That is what the taxpayers who had written to Mr. Clinton wanted him to do, correct an assessment that a court had already ruled to be illegal. As the Founding Fathers would have put it, there was a grievance and they wanted it redressed.
For many years Falls Church had used its water system, which serves far more people outside the City than within it, as a kind of “cash cow,” to underwrite the cost of its general municipal services and shift its tax burden from City residents to those living outside. That practice was ruled unconstitutional last year in a case called Fairfax County Water Authority v. City of Falls Church. It follows logically enough, that the taxpayers who had been paying the illegal tax, wanted their money back, and that’s why they had written to Mr. Clinton.
Now, no one necessarily expected him to immediately whip out his refund pen and begin writing checks. He might, for example have asked a court for further guidance. But that’s not what he did. Instead, he turned around and sued these taxpayers, asking a court to bar them from making any efforts to have him do his job.
Apparently lost on Mr. Clinton is a fundamental principal essential to American government – the right of the people to petition for a redress of grievances. That principle is enshrined in both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 12 of the Virginia Constitution.
Both constitutions place the right to petition the government alongside freedom of the press. Generally, the courts will not countenance what is called a “prior restraint,” on freedom of the press, that is, trying to stop something from being published before it appears. But Mr. Clinton is not content to rely on the remedies available to him if these taxpayers were to take further action. He wants them stopped now. He is asking the court to bar citizens from taking action to make him do his job, and that is not something that should rest comfortably with his oath to uphold the constitution and the right to petition government officials for a redress of grievances that lies at its heart.

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