Commentary

Virginia should jettison its special privileges for lawyer-lawmakers

May 25, 2021 12:02 am
A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury - Sept. 11, 2018)

A storm passes over the Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury – Sept. 11, 2018)

Billy Robinson Jr., the brilliant, late legislator-attorney, was the worst abuser of a state law that allows repeated delays if court dates conflict with time periods surrounding General Assembly sessions and committee meetings. News stories on the Norfolk Democrat — chronicling complaints from crime victims and prosecutors in cases Robinson handled — were plentiful during his lifetime.

Current state lawmakers Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County, and Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Marion, haven’t generated the same number of headlines about Section 30-5 of the Virginia code. Yet their repeated use of continuances should renew debate about it. 

Justice isn’t served when people face constant postponements. In criminal cases, the longer it takes for a trial to begin, the more likely witnesses’ recall of events will be hampered and victims will face ongoing trauma. 

Educators, business owners and others in the Assembly don’t receive such an exemption for their day jobs. Only attorneys do. Some 28 percent of the state delegates and senators, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, were attorneys in 2021. 

Norment’s name appeared recently in a lengthy report by a Richmond TV station.  It’s about a four-year-old civil case involving child support and property settlement that still hasn’t been resolved. WRIC reports that Vicki Ford blames the ongoing legal battle on Section 30-5; Norment represents Ford’s former husband. 

The station, citing court records and emails, said several delays occurred because Norment, the Senate minority leader, utilized the code section to seek continuances because of his Senate work. He contests that characterization. More on that later.

Campbell was in the spotlight last year because he sought continuances while representing former NASCAR driver Eric McClure in a domestic violence case involving his estranged wife. The Associated Press reported Campbell sought nine delays because of his legislative responsibilities. 

Smyth County Circuit Court online records showed Campbell began citing the 30-5 exemption in late 2018, the same year of the reported crime. Objections were raised several times after that. “This whole process has just been a nightmare,” Miranda McClure said.

The AP reported that Campbell’s work showed he had used the privilege in at least 30 of his cases from late 2016 through early 2020. His response to inquiries about invoking it so frequently? “The record is what the record is,” he told the AP.

Thanks for the clarity — and non-answer. 

Eric McClure eventually pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge in October. A judge sentenced him to probation. 

I don’t want to single out the attorneys named here. It’s sometimes difficult, however, to find out who uses the specific code section, and who avoids making a farce of it. Since lawyers can practice in several different jurisdictions, you’d have to go through court records in many different localities to fully investigate.

Reporters often learn about attorneys who repeatedly use the excuse when prosecutors or affected parties complain about the delays. 

Obviously, the courts should make it simpler to search their records and databases. 

All of this brings to mind the criticism Billy Robinson faced in the 1990s. The Harvard-trained lawyer carried plenty of clout in the courtroom and in Richmond. Yet, he did a lousy job of scheduling criminal cases, accepting more than he should have. 

The result was he sought delays so often that officials in the criminal justice system around Hampton Roads knew Robinson, who died in 2006, was one of the chief abusers of the privilege. 

He invoked the privilege just hours before trial in a case in which the murder weapon was a shotgun and the witnesses included three Suffolk police officers, medical and ballistic experts and half a dozen others. Also a domestic-violence slaying in Virginia Beach. And in one particularly disturbing case, the Portsmouth high school coach accused of secretly videotaping girls changing their clothes in the locker room — then splicing that tape with porn video.

Robinson gained frequent continuances in all of them. 

In the Portsmouth case, he especially angered parents and the prosecutor after they learned Robinson had gotten a delay for one trial date; wasn’t in Richmond on state business; and was instead in a federal court in Knoxville, Tenn., on another case. 

The longer the court proceedings lingered, obviously, the worse the emotional burden for the young women in the video. 

In 2001, Robinson lost the seat he’d held for 20 years to political newcomer Winsome Sears, who campaigned on his abuse of the legislative privilege. (Yes, she’s the current Republican nominee for lieutenant governor.) Robinson might not have lost solely because of that issue, but the publicity didn’t help him. 

The AP, citing the National Center for State Courts, says at least 17 states have provisions similar to Virginia’s on legislative privileges. So the commonwealth isn’t alone on this perk.

Fast-forward to the current news stories. 

When I interviewed Norment, he asserted the civil issue he’s handling has roots in an ugly divorce case that had been going on for five years and is now final. The former husband and wife had a business that was dissolving, and personal issues were intertwined. Ordinarily, he said, he handles very few domestic matters.

“She’s just a disaffected, venomous loser in the courts system,” Norment said, adding that Vicki Ford had lost several court initiatives she’d taken.

But since recent years at the General Assembly have included special sessions, I asked, shouldn’t he be either a legislator or an attorney – not both?

He certainly doesn’t need the small legislative salary of $18,000. He’s self-reported stocks and investments of more than $1 million, according to VPAP

“It’s a public service commitment I’ve made,” he said. Norment certainly has influence in the Senate, where he’s been a member for nearly 30 years. Norment added he gets satisfaction in crafting legislation that improves the lives of Virginians. 

Then too, there’s status to being one of only 40 senators in the commonwealth. It’s a pretty select group.

Of course, Norment doesn’t need to choose one role or the other because he doesn’t have to. Nor does he face a sacrifice on his day job because of the state code that elevates lawyer-legislators above every other occupation.

The 30-5 clause is legal, but it isn’t always ethical. Not when it leads to never-ending delays. Not when it torments crime victims who must wait again and again for justice, or drains legal fees from civil litigants. 

The General Assembly should change this law. Given that its own members benefit from it, I won’t hold my breath.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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