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Dispute between Lynchburg city attorney, judge over foster care representation moves forward
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Dispute between Lynchburg city attorney, judge over foster care representation moves forward

An unusual civil case against a juvenile and domestic relations judge is moving forward after a Lynchburg circuit judge denied a motion from the defendant to dismiss the case on Friday.

City Attorney Walter Erwin III is seeking a writ of prohibition — a legal move preventing a judge from acting outside their jurisdiction — in response to a July 2018 letter in which Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judge Robert Louis Harrison attempted to compel the office to represent Lynchburg Department of Social Services in all foster care cases.

Harrison presides in Bedford County and also sits in Lynchburg.

Erwin had filed the writ because Harrison’s letter threatened “immediate sanctions” if his office failed to comply.

Erwin previously stated in court filings the limitations of the city attorney’s office, saying providing counsel for all Department of Social Services cases would use a disproportionate amount of the office’s resources to the point where it would have difficulty meeting the needs of other city departments.

Erwin also said his office is only able to provide limited representation in DSS cases.

Harrison’s order stems from a July 2018 hearing in Lynchburg J&D Court to review the foster care plans for a child subject to a Child in Need of Services (CHINS) petition. An attorney from Erwin’s office was not present, but a lawyer responded that day after Harrison called for one.

Lynchburg Circuit Judge Frederick Watson said Friday there was a sufficient dispute for the case to go forward.

Sheri Kelly, an attorney from the Virginia Office of the Attorney General representing Harrison, said the Harrison was within his jurisdiction in exercising contempt powers to have a lawyer with the city attorney’s office represent DSS in all foster care cases.

Kelly also called into question the legitimacy of Erwin’s writ of prohibition, arguing Harrison’s letter was not tied to any specific case nor could it be considered an official order as a result. Therefore, she said, the document served only as a warning and the writ has no legal standing.

“Prohibition is not the only option here and is not the appropriate action here,” Kelly said.

Referencing a similar case that had gone before the Supreme Court of Virginia, Kelly said justices ruled not to uphold the prohibition because it was not linked to a specific case.

In a letter accompanying the order, Harrison said he had repeatedly made his position clear yet his “ruling” was ignored, also noting to leave the DSS unrepresented is a “major injustice” to the city, child and department.

“If you’re a recipient of this letter it sure reads like an order,” Watson said. “[It] sure smells like it.”

Edgar Dawson III, a lawyer representing Erwin and the city attorney’s office, argued the writ of prohibition was a necessary move, stating the city attorney’s office knew of no other vehicle to challenge the court’s jurisdiction to take action.

“That’s what this case is all about,” Dawson said in court.

Despite arguments to the contrary, Dawson said, Harrison had identified CHINS cases turned foster care cases — hearings in which Dawson said the city is not required to appear — in his letter, outlining specific cases in which the ruling could be applied.

Harrison had filed a previous motion to dismiss Erwin’s petition in October 2018 but was denied by then-Lynchburg Circuit Judge Ed Burnette, who also suspended any sanctions Harrison might take against Erwin until the matter is resolved.

A final hearing date wasn’t set during Friday’s proceedings.

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