On a windy fall evening in November 2011, in the middle of a raging downpour, state police officers handcuffed 19 soaked Occupy Columbia protestors who had refused to leave the State House grounds. The mass arrests were, as one officer growled to a reporter at the time, an “order by the governor.”
The county solicitor later dropped all criminal charges against the Occupiers, and several of those arrested that day sued Haley and state police officials for violating their constitutional right to protest. Two years later, that civil lawsuit is still slowly and quietly grinding its way through the federal court system.
On Halloween, lawyers representing a handful of the arrested Occupiers argued against Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's attorneys in front of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
Haley's attorneys traveled to Richmond so they could argue for what's called “qualified immunity” on behalf of the governor and the police officers. Lawyers for the Occupiers argued that Haley violated the constitutional rights of those arrested and that the state should not be immune from a lawsuit.
The three-judge panel was hearing one of the last cases left in the federal court system relating to Occupy Wall Street, a movement that captured the nation's attention in 2011 and early 2012. For a brief time, demonstrations throughout the nation thrust the issue of economic inequality to the forefront of American politics. Signs waved from city to city with a rallying cry of “We are the 99 percent.”
Columbia lawyer Kevin Hall, who represented Haley and the officers, told the three justices there are multiple state statutes regulating the use of the State House grounds that come with restrictions and conditions.
“The conditions, without dispute, were handed to the protestors,” Hall told the court. “The conditions say 6 p.m. on the grounds and 5 in the building. And a police officer has willy-nilly violated the constitutional rights of somebody on that factual background? I don't think so.”
Drew Radeker, a Columbia attorney representing the Occupiers, said Haley specifically singled them out.
“What these people were doing here was picketing,” he said. “And what they were doing was protesting being denied the ability to protest in the manner of their choice at this place, and that's what they were arrested for doing.”
The reason the case was heard in a Virginia courtroom is because Haley appealed the 2012 ruling of a federal judge in South Carolina. The case started in a state court in Richland County, but was kicked up to the federal district court in Columbia at Haley's request. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond covers cases originating in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.
Because it's in the appeals process, it's possible Occupy Columbia v. Nikki Haley
could wind up at the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Nov. 16, 2011, Haley held an impromptu afternoon news conference outside her State House office. At the time, about 20 demonstrators had been living and sleeping on the State House grounds for a month, and Haley said they would be arrested if they stayed on the grounds after 6 p.m. That evening, 19 of the Occupiers chose to stay, and they were taken to jail.
Travis Bland, a plaintiff in the case who was an Occupy Columbia organizer at the time he was arrested, doesn't have much to do with the movement anymore. He says he gets occasional updates from his lawyers about the case.
“You can see this process has gone on for two years now,” he says, adding that he wonders if there might be some political motivation for dragging it out. Whether that could be Haley wanting to keep the case out of the spotlight during her 2014 re-election campaign — or keeping it alive in order to play to her base — he isn't sure.
And while Bland's Occupy days are behind him, he couldn't resist a zinger related to money and politics.
“The amount the state is paying lawyers is incredible,” he says.