RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that would prevent any state agency from assisting in the detention of U.S. citizens if it conflicts with the U.S. or state Constitution — a direct response to a controversial provision of President Obama's 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.
The bill, introduced by Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, states that Virginia will not participate in unlawfully detaining residents under the act. Under some interpretations of the law, the U.S. military would be allowed to detain citizens indefinitely on American soil.
Mr. Obama issued a statement when he signed the bill on New Year's Eve saying he disagreed with provisions in the law. He later issued a statement saying he would not authorize the indefinite military detention of U.S. citizens without trial. He nevertheless drew fire for leaving open the possibility for future administrations to make nefarious use of the law.
"When Barack Obama, the ACLU, Bob Marshall and the John Birch Society agree on something, pay attention," Mr. Marshall said. "This is Kafkaesque."
The measure took a torturous route to its final passage Thursday. It cleared the House by a 96-4 vote last month, and a similar version passed the Senate 39-1.
An amended Senate version was then rejected by the House, with 51 members of the 100-member chamber voting against it. Rather than insist on that version, crafted by Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen, Fairfax Democrat, the Senate on Thursday backed off the amended version. That allowed the bill to go to Gov. Bob McDonnell instead of to a conference, where it could be killed quietly.
"The unlawful detention of US citizens is wrong, and here in the Commonwealth we will never assist in the detention of others, no matter the state of war that we may be in, or no matter the emergency," Mr. Petersen said in a statement.
The bill's passage creates a somewhat tricky political situation for Virginia's Republican governor, who has not indicated whether he plans to sign the tea-party-backed legislation.
Signing the Virginia bill could be seen as contradicting the position of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has said he would sign the federal act. Mr. McDonnell has been aggressively campaigning for Mr. Romney and could be on his shortlist of potential vice-presidential picks.
"While the Governor does not condone the unlawful detention of US citizens, we do have concerns about the impact, whether intended or not, this legislation would have on Joint Terrorism Task Forces of which state and local agencies are members, information sharing by and with the Virginia State Police and local law enforcement, and the impact on our Virginia National Guard personnel," McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin said in a statement.
The issue has become a lightning rod even among Republicans. Mr. Romney was booed at one presidential debate after saying he would sign the act. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, meanwhile, has repeatedly assailed the law as unconstitutional.
Virginia's GOP congressional delegation split on the vote in December.
Rep. James P. Moran Jr., Virginia Democrat, said that although the act contains important provisions for national defense, it is a "grave mistake" to allow the government to detain terrorism suspects without charge or trial in military prisons.
"It takes little imagination to consider how such a policy might be grossly misused against innocent people by future administrations," he said.
Mr. Marshall's bill united a motley crew of supporters across the political spectrum, ranging from tea-party activists to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Japanese American Citizens League sent a letter to state legislators pointing to the more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans detained during World War II.
"Virginia has the opportunity to stand up to an unjust application of Congressional authority," the letter reads. "The American people need somebody to stand up against this injustice."
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