The Virginia Scope, a weekly political newsletter, and its author Brandon Jarvis were subpoenaed by state Sen. Joe Morrissey on March 8, 2023, as part of the senator’s custody battle.
Jarvis told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he received subpoenas a few weeks after publishing a statement attributed to family members of the senator’s estranged wife, Myrna Morrissey. The judge in the custody case had issued a gag order barring the parents from speaking about the case while it was ongoing.
Jarvis’ attorney, Tom Barbour Jr., said that Joe Morrissey issued three concurrent subpoenas — one to the Virginia Scope and two addressed to Jarvis. Jarvis and the Virginia Scope were both ordered to produce any text messages with Myrna Morrissey, her attorneys or her family members. Jarvis was additionally ordered to appear on March 24 to testify.
Jarvis denied the existence of any such messages in a post on Twitter the day he received the subpoenas.
Jarvis told the Tracker that receiving the subpoenas and fighting them disrupted his reporting, especially his coverage of Joe Morrissey’s reelection campaign.
“There was other stuff happening in his race that I couldn’t necessarily cover in a timely fashion because I didn’t want to write anything about him while there was a gag order,” Jarvis said. “It was a stressful situation, because at the end of the line there is a possibility of jail time.”
Barbour filed a motion to quash the subpoenas on March 15, arguing in part that Jarvis’ communications are privileged under the First Amendment. A judge for the Chesterfield County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court granted the motion on March 23, but left the door open for the senator to reissue the subpoenas if he exhausts all other avenues for obtaining the information.
In a statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Joe Morrissey said he was pleased with the ruling, saying that the judge had made it clear that Jarvis “is by no means off the hook at all.”
Barbour told the Tracker that the case was particularly alarming because of the senator’s position in the state government.
“It would be chilling enough if any citizen were doing it, but in this case we’ve got someone who holds elected office in our commonwealth attempting to determine who the confidential source of a political journalist is,” Barbour said. “I think that’s of great concern.”
Virginia is one of nine states without a shield law protecting journalists from court orders seeking their communications or work product.