Commentary & Community

Confederate Statue Removal Cleared by State Supreme Court

Charlottesville, Virginia, can take down statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the state’s high court has ruled.


In 2017, city officials voted to remove the two statues after a “Unite the Right” rally turned violent in Charlottesville. However, an area group sued the city, saying a 1997 law forbade the removal of “war memorials” by cities. 


The Supreme Court disagreed. Justices determined that this law did not apply to the two statues in Charlottesville because they were erected prior to the law’s enactment. They held that laws apply prospectively -- going forward -- not retroactively, so it could not prohibit the removal of statues erected prior to when it was passed. Charlottesville is now free to take down these statues.


This is a victory for those who consider statues to Confederate officials part of a legacy of white supremacy. They argue that these statues and other historical markers condone racism and send a negative message to minorities. Supporters of the statues counter that they are only commemorating history and not sending a political message.


Do you think that Confederate statues should be taken down?


Virginia Set to End Death Penalty

The Virginia legislature voted this week to abolish capital punishment in the state.


The House of Delegates supported a death penalty repeal bill this week, following prior action in the State Senate. The House vote was largely along partisan lines, with all the Democrats supporting it and all but two Republicans opposing it. The two chambers passed slightly different versions of the bill, with one containing language that allows judges to impose a maximum sentence of life without parole while the other allows for parole in limited instances. A conference committee will reconcile these differences. Once a final version of the legislation passes the legislature, Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign it.


Upon enactment of this bill, Virginia will be the first Southern state to end the use of capital punishment. There has been a movement across U.S. states to abolish the death penalty, but its use has survived in the South. With Democrats now controlling the legislature and governorship in Virginia, that state is set to break with its neighbors on this issue.


Supporters of ending the death penalty contend that it is a barbaric practice that has no place in civilized society. They also say that innocent people may be put to death. Opponents of repeal say that there are some crimes so heinous that they deserve to be punished by death. They argue that ending the death penalty will send the wrong message to criminals.


Do you think states should stop using capital punishment?

Virginia House Advance Three Gun Control Bills

Legislators in Virginia are on the verge of tightening up the state’s gun laws. The House recently passed three bills that would impose more restrictions in firearms in Virginia.


One bill would allow local school boards to prohibit anyone except law enforcement personnel from carrying guns on their property. Another would extend the waiting period for gun purchases. Currently gun buyers must wait 3 days if their background check is not completed instantaneously. Under this legislation, that waiting period would extend to 5 days. The final bill would make it a felony to manufacture, sell, or possess homemade guns.


Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has made it a priority to enact gun control laws. During this session of the legislature he called on members to pass “bold, meaningful action.” With Democrats taking control of the legislature after a long period of Republican majorities, they have been supportive of these efforts.


Supporters of these laws consider them necessary as part of a larger strategy to make Virginia safe from gun violence. They argue that these laws will help keep guns away from violent individuals while not infringing on the rights of legal gun owners. Opponents disagree, arguing that the burden of these new laws will fall primarily on these legal gun owners since criminals disobey laws. They say that restricting firearms or infringing upon the carrying of guns will lead to higher crime.


The Virginia Senate will now consider these bills.


Do you think that there should be a 5-day waiting period for gun purchases?

Gov. Northam Pushes to Legalize Marijuana in Virginia

If Gov. Ralph Northam gets his way, Virginians will soon be able to enjoy legal marijuana.


This week the Northam Administration outlined legislation that would legalize marijuana for recreational use. If enacted, this law would impose a 21% tax on marijuana products and establish a process for those who were affected by marijuana laws in the past could gain entry into the legal marijuana system.


Eleven states have legalized the possession and use of marijuana for recreational purposes: Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. Most of the legalization efforts succeeded through ballot measures approved by voters, but state legislators are beginning to embrace this cause, too.


Supporters of legalization say that marijuana prohibition hurts minority communities, giving many young men a criminal record and hurting their chance of success later in life. They say that legalizing and regulating the drug will keep people out of jail, with the taxes on marijuana products being used for health care and other government services. Opponents of legalization contend that marijuana is a gateway drug. They argue that legalization will lead to increased use of marijuana, which will have significant harms for society.


With both houses of the Virginia General Assembly in Democratic control, the prospects for marijuana legalization look good in that state. The governor's measure has been endorsed by the legislative black caucus, among other groups. 


Do you support legalizing marijuana?

Virginia Voters Shut Legislators out of Redistricting

Virginia legislators will no longer be determining the shape of legislative and congressional districts in that state.


Voters overwhelmingly approved Question 1, which gives power to draw congressional and legislative districts to an independent commission. Those backing this state constitutional amendment said that allowing politicians to draw these districts leads to gerrymandering, which deprives many voters of a meaningful choice. They contended that independent commissions will consider politics less than politicians will. Opponents, however, pushed back. They said that by giving redistricting power to a commission, it will take away the chance of voters to hold their elected officials accountable for how districts are drawn.


Congressional and legislative lines must be drawn after every census. In 2011, Virginia legislators were unable to agree on new districts, since Democrats and Republicans split control of legislative chambers. Under an independent commission, this situation would not occur again. Legislators in two successive sessions supported resolutions that would give voters the chance to vote on making this change to the state constitution. 


When this commission convenes after the 2020 census results are known, it will be composed of legislators from the Democratic and Republican parties as well as private citizens. The commission will draw maps that could then be approved or rejected by the Virginia General Assembly. Legislators may not amend the maps. If the General Assembly rejects the maps, the commission will draw another set of maps. If the General Assembly votes down these maps, then the Virginia Supreme Court will draw the lines.


Prior to Virginia’s approval of this amendment, 7 states had similar independent commissions that draw congressional district lines, while 10 states had independent commissions to compose legislative districts.


Question 1 garnered nearly 66% of the vote.


Do you support an independent commission to draw congressional and legislative district lines?

Virginia Bans No-Knock Warrants

This week Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed a variety of bills into law that reform policing in Virginia, including one that prohibits the use of no-knock warrants.


No-knock warrants have come under scrutiny since the police shooting of Breonna Taylor. Police in Louisville, Kentucky, had a no-knock warrant to search her apartment. They ended up shooting her, with the exact details of what happened under dispute. Some observers say that if police failed to identify themselves, such as no-knock warrants allow, this can lead to a situation where police are mistaken for intruders. Some argue that this is what happened in the Breonna Taylor case, with her boyfriend then shooting at police because he thought they were criminals. The police then shot back, killing Taylor.


In the wake of this shooting, criminal justice reform advocates have pushed states and local governments to outlaw the use of these warrants. They maintain that ending the use of no-knock warrants will reduce the possibility of accidental shootings like that which killed Taylor. Critics of these bans contend that police need them to serve warrants in a way that minimizes suspects from destroying evidence.


Legislators passed this ban as part of other criminal justice reform bills. These other measures include mandating that police officers intervene if they see other officers using excessive force and curbing the use of military weapons and tactics by police.


Virginia becomes the third state to ban police from using no-knock warrants.


Do you think that no-knock warrants should be banned?

Virginia Voters to Decide on Redistricting Reform

How Virginia's congressional and legislative districts are drawn may change if Virginia voters give their approval in November.


Under Question 1, power to draw congressional and legislative districts would move from legislators to an independent commission. Supporters of this change to the state's constitution argue that allowing politicians to draw these districts leads to gerrymandering, which deprives many voters of a meaningful choice. They contend that independent commissions will consider politics less than politicians will. Opponents, however, contend that by giving this power to a commission, it takes away the chance of voters to hold their elected officials accountable for how districts are drawn.


Congressional and legislative lines must be drawn after every census. In 2011, Virginia legislators were unable to agree on new districts, since Democrats and Republicans split control of legislative chambers. Under an independent commission, this situation would not occur again. Legislators in two successive sessions supported resolutions that would give voters the chance to vote on making this change to the state constitution. 


If voters approve the creation of an independent redistricting commission, it would be composed of legislators from the Democratic and Republican parties as well as private citizens. The commission would draw maps that could then be approved or rejected by the Virginia General Assembly. Legislators could not amend the maps. If the General Assembly rejects the maps, the commission would draw another set of maps. If the General Assembly votes down these maps, then the Virginia Supreme Court would draw the lines.


Currently 7 states have similar independent commissions that draw congressional district lines, while 10 states have independent commissions to compose legislative districts. 

Judge Blocks Removal of Lee Statue

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wants a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee removed from Richmond. A federal judge this week slowed down efforts to take the statue down.


In the wake of protests over the police killing of George Floyd, Gov. Northam has ordered the Richmond statue commemorating the Confederate general removed. This statue has long been controversial in the city, with activists and politicians calling for it to be taken down. This is part of a larger movement in Virginia to eliminate monuments and statues that some people see as celebrating the Confederacy and slavery.


A federal judge, however, has issued an injunction preventing the governor’s order from taking effect. The judge says that when the state annexed the land the statue was on, it promised to guard and protect the statue. This judge ordered a hearing to examine these issues, and the fate of the statue now depends on the courts.


Throughout the nation, there is increased pressure to re-examine the numerous public monuments to people and places connected with slavery and the Confederacy. Those pushing to remove them say that the nation should not celebrate people who fought to protect slavery or who were traitors to the nation. They argue that while we need to remember history, our nation should not put forward these individuals as people to be admired.


This campaign has prompted a strong backlash, however. Those opposing it counter that history is complicated, and trying to remove monuments to historical figures is imposing our views on the past. They accuse anti-monument activists and politicians of wanting to erase history.


An effort to remove a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted widespread violence and one death in that city.


Do you think that Confederate monuments should be removed?

Virginia Enacts Carbon-Free Energy Law

By 2050, Virginia’s utilities must be producing carbon-free energy under a law signed this week by Gov. Ralph Northam.


This legislation requires that Dominion Energy, which serves most of the state, to provide energy to customers that was made without any carbon emissions by 2045. Another utility, which serves a smaller part of the state, must go carbon-free by 2050.


Those who support this measure say it is necessary to help combat climate change. They argue that this transition will create jobs in the clean energy sector and improve the state’s environment. Opponents, however, predict that this will raise energy costs for consumers and businesses. They note that such an outcome will destroy jobs and hurt the state’s economy.


When Virginia voters elected a Democratic majority to the state’s legislature, these legislators ran on an ambitious slate of liberal ideas. This carbon-free mandate was one of those proposals. Republicans had controlled the legislature or the governorship prior to 2019’s elections, and had prevented Democratic legislators’ attempts to pass many of these bills in previous years.


A handful of other states have mandated a switch to no-carbon energy production, but Virginia is the first southern state to do so.

Virginia Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession

Possessing small amounts of marijuana in Virginia will no longer be a criminal offense.


Under a bill passed by Virginia legislators this week, someone is caught with less than an ounce of marijuana or marijuana products will face a civil fine of $25. The bill also puts convictions for this level of drug possession under seal so they would not be available to employers or others.


This new penalty is in contrast to the criminal penalties under current law. Right now, marijuana possession is punishable by a fine of $500 or 30 days in jail.


Supporters of the bill say that current drug laws disproportionately affect minorities, giving them a criminal record that makes it difficult to obtain employment. They note that many other states are undertaking similar reductions in penalties for simple marijuana possession.


This bill does not legalize marijuana possession and use, as a handful of states have done. However, legislators approved a bill that would study full legalization in the state.


Both Democratic and Republican legislators supported the decriminalization bill. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has said he would sign the legislation.


Do you think that marijuana possession should be decriminalized?

Virginia to End Requirement of Photo ID for Voting

In 2012, Virginia enacted a law requiring a photo identification for voting. This week, legislators passed a bill that ends this requirement.


Under HB 19, voters could show documents such as bank statements or pay-stubs in order to prove their identity and vote. They can also sign an affidavit attesting to their identity if they do not have these documents. They would no longer be required to produce a photo ID at their polling place.


This change, led by Democrats, undoes legislation that the previous governor, Bob McDonnell, signed into law eight years ago. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has said he supports ending the photo ID requirement.


Supporters of changing the law contend that strict voter ID laws make it more difficult to vote. They say that they disproportionately impact minorities and the poor, so are a way to reduce Democratic turnout. Opponents of ending the photo ID requirement argue that this is a good way to prevent voter fraud. They point out that many areas in life require photo ID, so it is not a hardship to require it for voting.


There have been pushes in many states to require photo IDs for voting. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that such laws were not unconstitutional.

Do you think that voters should show a photo ID before voting?

Collective Bargaining for Government Workers May Be Coming to Virginia

Only three states do not allow government workers to unionize and collectively bargain for wages and benefits. Virginia legislators are moving to reduce this list to two states.


State senators have passed a bill that would permit government employees to collectively bargain, something the law currently prohibits. This is something that has been sought for years by public employee unions, especially teachers’ unions.


Those who are backing this bill argue that government employees deserve the same right as private sector employees to join unions and negotiate collectively. They say that this is essential to them obtaining higher wages and better benefits. Teachers’ unions also say it will help improve education in the state.


Opponents counter that such a move will be costly for taxpayers. They also argue that government workers are not the same as private sector workers, since they have the ability to vote and campaign for and against the elected officials in charge of negotiation. These opponents also dismiss the idea that collective bargaining improves school quality.


Governor Ralph Northam has said he will consider both sides of this issue if this bill passes the legislature, which is likely. Most observers expect him to sign it.


If Virginia enacts this law, only North Carolina and South Carolina will bar public sector collective bargaining.


Do you think that government employees should be able to collectively bargain for wages and benefits?

"Assault Weapons" Ban Blocked in Virginia Legislature

A ban on some types of semi-automatic firearms with military features is dead – for now – in Virginia. But legislators could bring up a ban on guns they label as “assault weapons” in 2021.


When Democrats took control of the legislature in January 2020, they made gun control one of their top priorities. They had the support of Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in these efforts. He had long supported measures like limiting handgun purchases and banning assault weapons, but he faced opposition when Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature. With Democrats taking the majority in the 2019 elections, however, it paved the way to achieving new restrictions on gun ownership.


While legislators have passed a variety of gun control measures, a Senate committee blocked the assault weapons ban this week. Instead of prohibiting these guns, legislators voted to request a study of the issue from a state commission. They postponed a vote on the ban until 2021.


Supports of an assault weapons ban argue that these guns are military guns that do not belong in civilian hands. They argue that such a ban will reduce mass shootings. Opponents counter that these guns only look like military guns, and that they are only used in a very small amount of crimes. They also point out that studies found little to no effect on crime reduction during a federal assault weapons ban.


Many pro-gun Virginians have rallied in Richmond, urging legislators to vote against gun control.


The Senate committee vote effectively ends efforts this year to enact a ban this year. It remains to be seen what a study will produce and whether legislators will have an appetite for such a ban next year.


Do you support banning semi-automatic firearms that have the same cosmetic features as military guns?

Virginia to Replace Lee-Jackson Day with Election Day Holiday

A day honoring Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson may soon be removed from the list of Virginia state holidays. Instead, legislators want to give Election Day that honor.


Both the Virginia House and Senate have passed bills that would make Election Day a state holiday. This new holiday would replace Lee-Jackson Day, which is currently celebrated on the Friday prior to Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. Election Day was a holiday in Virginia until 1989.


Supporters of this idea argue that it will encourage voting by giving people the day off. They also say that Virginia should not celebrate Confederate generals, so ending Lee-Jackson Day is a good trade-off for an Election Day holiday. Opponents counter that there is no need to make Election Day a holiday, since the polls are open all-day and voters can request absentee ballots. They also argue that ending Lee-Jackson day is a blow to the state’s history.


Governor Ralph Northam said he supports this legislation.


Democrats in the legislature had been pushing to end Lee-Jackson Day for many years. However, the Republican-controlled legislature had never passed such legislation. With Democrats gaining control of both houses of the legislature in 2019, this bill is now likely to become law soon.


Do you think Virginia should have a holiday honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson? Should Election Day be a holiday?

Virginia Legislators Tackle Gun Control, Abortion, ERA

With Virginia voters last year giving Democrats complete power in Richmond, this year’s legislative session has seen the passage of numerous bills on hot-button issues. Here are some of the notable bills that were discussed or passed by legislators this week:


  • Enacting gun control. The House of Delegates passed legislation that would impose background checks on private gun sales, limit the purchase of handguns to one per month, and allow police to seize the firearms of someone they deem a threat. Similar legislation had already passed the state senate.
  • Loosening abortion restrictions. Both houses of the legislature have passed bills that would end the 24-hour waiting period before a woman can get an abortion, the requirement that doctors show a woman an ultrasound prior to abortion, and certain mandates on abortion clinics.
  • Passing the Equal Rights Amendment. The House of Delegates took a final vote to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Although the congressionally-mandated deadline has passed to ratify the amendment, Virginia becomes the last state necessary to add it to the Constitution. There will now be a legal fight over whether Congress can put a time limit on ratification.
  • Ending legislator immunity from arrest. After a state delegate was stopped on suspicion of drunk driving but was let go without being arrested, it prompted many to call for a change to the state constitution. A current provision in the constitution gives legislators immunity from arrest while the legislature is in session. This week, a senator introduced a constitutional amendment that would end that immunity.


Do you support ending the 24-hour-waiting period for abortions? Should handgun purchases be limited to one per month? Should legislators be immune from arrest during session?

Equal Rights Amendment Passes in Virginia

After years of partisan disagreement over the Equal Rights Amendment, the Virginia legislature this week finally ratified it. Legislators’ action on this amendment now sets up a fight over whether or not this amendment should be added to the U.S. Constitution.


The Equal Rights amendment states:


Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.


Congress passed the ERA in 1972 and sent it to states for ratification. The original resolution required that the necessary number of states (38, or three-fourths of the states) must act within 7 years or the amendment would die. Not enough states ratified the amendment within that time, so Congress extended the deadline to 1982. Even with this extended deadline, the ERA still failed to meet the necessary number of states for ratification.


During this time, 35 states ratified the ERA. However, as controversy grew over the amendment, 5 states rescinded their ratification. Since 2017, 3 states (including Virginia) have ratified the ERA. Democratic Virginia legislators have been attempting to pass the ERA in recent years, but their efforts were thwarted by the Republican majority. In last year's elections, Virginia voters gave Democrats the majority in the legislature.


The issue of whether states can rescind their ratification is a controversial one, with many experts saying that these rescissions are not valid. The statutory deadline for ratification is also under question. The Trump Administration has issued an opinion stating that even with 38 states ratifying the ERA (which does not count states that have rescinded their ratification), the congressionally-imposed deadline should bar the amendment from being added to the Constitution.


Virginia legislators were aware of these controversies, but dismissed them. They argued that it was their job to pass the amendment to support equal rights, recognizing that there will be a legal battle over whether the amendment will become part of the Constitution.


Supporters of the ERA say it is necessary to have a constitutional bar against discrimination based on sex. They argue that this is the only way to ensure that women’s rights are protected. Opponents counter that the Constitution already prohibits discrimination and that this amendment could lead courts to strike down restrictions on abortion.


Do you support the Equal Rights Amendment?

Gun Control Advancing in Virginia

Democrats are now in charge of the two houses of the Virginia legislature and the governor’s mansion. They are taking advantage of this opportunity to push through gun control bills that had long been stopped by Republicans.


Among the bills moving through the legislature in Richmond:

  • Banning firearms from the capitol building complex, including firearms carried by law enforcement, legislators, and those with concealed weapons permits
  • Limiting handgun purchases to one per month
  • Mandating background checks for all firearms purchases, including private sales between individuals
  • Permitting local governments more leeway in enacting gun bans for certain events
  • Giving police the ability to remove guns from someone’s possession if they think that person poses a threat of imminent harm


Democratic Virginia legislators have long tried to pass these bills, but Republicans who controlled the legislature quashed these efforts. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, called legislators into special session last year to consider gun control bills. Republican leaders adjourned the session without doing so.


In the 2019 elections, however, Virginia voters gave Democrats control of both legislative bodies for the first time in years. With Northam still in the governor’s mansion, it set up a situation where Republicans no longer had the votes to thwart gun control bills. This is what Democrats have focused on in the early days of the legislative session.


Those pushing these bills say they are necessary to reduce gun violence and protect Virginians. Opponents counter that gun control targets law-abiding gun owners and that there is little evidence that it actually reduces crime.


Do you support limiting handgun purchases to one per month? Should all gun sales, even private sales, be subject to background checks?


Second Amendment Sanctuary Cities Come to Virginia

Virginia legislators are gearing up to pass a number of new gun control bills starting January. While it is unclear exactly what will be proposed in the legislature, local officials are already fighting back. They are passing resolutions declaring their counties “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” saying that they want to stand up for gun rights in the face of unconstitutional laws.


Gun control legislation has stalled for years in the Virginia legislature. Democratic governors have pushed for a variety of bills to restrict the sale and ownership of firearms, but Republican legislative leaders have rejected these proposals. But last year, Democrats took control of the legislature. Many of the new members have vowed to enact gun bills, something that Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam supports.


This has prompted city and county governments across Virginia to pass resolutions declaring that they will support the Second Amendment and refuse to enforce what they see as unconstitutional gun laws. These resolutions are similar to what is being done by some local governments in other states in response to gun laws.


While a local government can express opposition to state gun laws, it has no authority to prevent such laws from being enforced within its jurisdiction. State law overrides local law. Law enforcement have a duty to enforce state law, although they do have discretion on how they conduct such enforcement.


While this movement echoes the label of the sanctuary policies that cities, counties, and states have declared regarding immigration, there is one key difference. Those policies affected local and state cooperation with federal immigration laws. The federal government has no power to compel these law enforcement entities to enforce federal law. States do have the power to compel local police and sheriffs to enforce state law.


Gov. Northam has been vague about what he will do in reaction to these sanctuary policies. There have been no new state gun control laws enacted, so it remains to be seen what will happen once these laws go into effect. Gov. Northam has said there could be repercussions for local law enforcement officials who do not comply with state law.


Do you think that local governments should declare they will not enforce state gun control laws they view as unconstitutional?

Northam Pushes for Gun Control in Virginia

Democratic Governor Ralph Northam is calling legislators back to work for a special session. He wants them to have an up-or-down vote on a variety of gun control bills. The Republicans who control both houses of the legislature are cool to the idea.


In the wake of a workplace shooting in Virginia Beach, Gov. Northam said he would call a special session of the legislature focused on gun control legislation. Saying that thoughts and prayers were not enough, the governor wants Republican lawmakers to bring gun control bills to the floor of both chambers for a vote.


Virginia Democratic legislators have introduced numerous gun control bills in recent years, but the Republicans who control both chambers of the General Assembly have killed these bills in committee. The governor has urged the Republican leadership to allow a floor vote on a variety of measures.


Gov. Northam said that he would work with legislators to introduce bills that would mandate background checks for gun sales between private individuals, give local governments more power to limit guns in public buildings, prohibit purchasing more than one handgun a month, and allow the government to seize firearms under a “red flag” law.


The majority leaders in the legislature point out that the governor can call a special session, but cannot determine how the legislature operates. They say that the governor should focus on punishing criminals, not in restricting constitutional rights.


Do you think that Virginia legislators should enact stricter gun control laws?

Judge Says Confederate Statues Must Stay

Officials in Charlotte, Virginia, want that city’s monuments to the Confederacy gone. Those efforts do not look likely to succeed, however, as a judge rules that state law prevents the city from removing war monuments.


In 2017, the city council voted to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The city also wants to remove the statue of General Stonewall Jackson, too. State law, however, bars municipal governments from taking down war statues without permission of the state.


The city had argued that these statues are not war monuments, but a state judge did not buy that argument. He said that the law did indeed protect those statues from removal, and so Charlottesville had no choice but to keep them.


The proposal to remove these statues sparked the August 2017 alt-right march in Charlottesville. At this incident, a white supremacist ran over a counter-protestor, killing her.


Do you think that cities should take down monuments to Confederate generals?

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