The recent firing of University of Virginia counsel Tim Heaphy by Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares is not unprecedented, but it is unusual, according to a legal expert and former deputy attorney general.
Heaphy, who had been on a leave of absence to lead the work of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, was fired by Miyares. The decision came just a week into Miyares’ term and not long after the attorney general laid off more than 30 people in the office during his first weekend.
The decision to fire Heaphy came after various promises from Miyares to shake up the AG’s office and change the way Virginia’s top legal office operates. In a statement to the Washington Post, Victoria LaCivita, director of communications for the attorney general, said the decision to fire Heaphy had nothing to do with the Jan. 6 committee or its investigations.
“Our decision was made after reviewing the legal decisions made over the last couple of years,” LaCivita said in a statement to the Washington Post. “The Attorney General wants the university counsel to return to giving legal advice based on law, and not the philosophy of a university. We plan to look internally first for the next lead counsel.”
LaCivita did not respond to a request for clarification about which legal decisions were reviewed.
Heaphy, a UVa graduate, was appointed as UVa counsel and senior assistant attorney general in August 2018. The former U.S. Attorney of the Western District of Virginia led a team of lawyers who reviewed the University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville’s responses to violent clashes in August 2017.
In Virginia, the attorney general is given the power to appoint counsel within Virginia’s public colleges and universities.
While Miyares has the authority to hire and fire university counsel and other lawyers, a legal expert said Miyares has acted unusually fast. According to H. Lane Kneedler, whose multi-decade career has spanned multiple state attorney generals, the amount of turnover and political appointments made by Miyares are unusual.
Kneedler, who served most recently as senior counsel to former Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, also served as chief deputy attorney general of Virginia from 1986-1992, and has had 28 years of experience with state Attorneys General and the National Association of Attorneys General.
“I would say that it is unusual to replace university counsel; I know we didn’t do it in either of the administrations I was in,” Kneedler said. “[University lawyers] are generally viewed as apolitical positions, and if the universities are satisfied with their counsel, which they generally are, our answer was typically that they stay there.”
Kneedler said he thinks Miyares’ appointments have been political and that he is surprised by that. Recalling his time serving as chief deputy attorney general under Mary Sue Terry, Kneedler said people were not typically hired due to their political alignments.
“I’m sure people don’t believe that, but that’s the case,” he said. “These are all political people, but I think being so direct about it causes me concern. This is supposed to be the state’s law firm, in essence, and it is not a political agency.”
The perceived political motivation for Heaphy’s firing has also drawn criticism from the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which condemned the decision and argued it was tied to Heaphy’s Jan. 6 investigation.
Heaphy did not respond to a request for comment but expressed disappointment in a statement to the Cavalier Daily.
“As a two-time graduate of the University, the parent of a current student and a longtime resident of Charlottesville, I love the University and have been privileged to contribute to its aspiration to be both great and good,” Heaphy wrote. “While I’m disappointed that my time as University Counsel has come to an end, I’m confident that the office will continue to provide quality service as the University continues to thrive in the days to come.”
With Heaphy on leave, Jasmine Yoon has led the Office of University Counsel, according to the UVa news release.