RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – The term “censure” has been in the news lately. At the national level, you may have heard calls for it to be used against Republican legislators who have been criticized for possibly instigating incursion into the Capitol building. It’s also big here in Richmond, where Amanda Chase has been similarly criticized and today was censured by her colleagues in the state Senate.

So, what is censure anyway?

First, it is not the same thing as “censor,” a term limiting speech, although the words have similar Latin roots. A legislator is censured through a resolution passed in their particular legislative body by a simple majority vote. Like most resolutions, a censure vote is a largely informal, symbolic action and is used to publicly proclaim that the legislative body disapproves of the member’s actions.

The use of censure has a longstanding history in legislatures and was first proposed in the United States, although not passed, to criticize the financial dealings of one Alexander Hamilton. (I heard a song about that guy once.)

Rich Meagher
Richard Meagher

The U.S. Constitution is just as vague about these kinds of punishments as it is on many issues, noting only that, “Each house… may punish its members for disorderly behavior.” The Virginia Constitution has similar language, clearly modeled on its national counterpart – hence the informal nature of censure resolutions.

So, what happens when a Virginia legislator is censured? Well, nothing. At least, nothing official.

As far as I can tell, the only time in Virginia’s history that this practice has been used was in 1987 when Democrat Peter Babalas was censured by the state Senate for not recusing himself from votes in which he had a possible financial interest. Nothing else happened to Babalas – no fines, fees or loss of power. It is true that he did not run for re-election in part due to his censure and related scandal, but another factor almost certainly was the bone marrow cancer that claimed his life by the end of that election year.

Of course, legislative bodies can implement additional punishments either instead of or along with censure, but these require separate actions. For example, this month Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn stripped three Republican legislators of committee assignments due to their perceived role in the D.C. fiasco. But that move did not require a vote and reflects the judgment of partisan leadership, not the whole body.

Still, the same section of the Virginia Constitution that allows punishments notes that either the Senate or the House could, by a 2/3 vote, actually expel a member. Expulsion is very, very rare – it’s only been used five times at the national level and never in the commonwealth.

Legislators, worried about glass houses, probably prefer to let voters do the dirty work of removing their colleagues from office.