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Recent reversals leave egg on the face of Va. legislature

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RICHMOND — Virginia legislators shoot down the nomination of a gay prosecutor to the bench; Richmond’s Circuit Court promptly appoints him. They pass stricter rules on abortion clinics, specifying that existing facilities are not exempt; the state’s Board of Health grandfathers them in anyway. They twice give the governor the thumbs-down on plans to give the Washington Redskins millions of dollars to stay in Virginia; the governor turns around and does it on his own.

Why does the General Assembly suddenly seem like Rodney Dangerfield?

Some say lawmakers brought the reversals on themselves with “extreme lawmaking.” Others blame activist judges, liberal bureaucrats and a headstrong chief executive. Others simply chalk it up to the downside of part-time legislating.

“We’re only there two months. As soon as everybody leaves, they do whatever they want to do,” said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). “It’s like when you’re in high school and your parents leave for a long weekend and — ‘Party at your house!’ ”

Whatever the reason, the dissing of state lawmakers has been very much on display. In the space of three business days, the court and the health board defied the General Assembly, while House budget writers publicly railed against the $6.4 million “corporate welfare” deal struck with the Redskins earlier in the month.

While the attorney general’s office contends that the health board’s ruling was contrary to state law, everyone concedes that the court had the authority to appoint the judge and that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) had the power to make a deal with the football team. But many lawmakers, conservatives in particular, see all three actions as affronts.

“Many of these things are not illegal, but it represents a whole new level of combat with elected officials that we don’t usually see in Virginia,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist. “Normally, the legislature enjoys a much greater level of deference and respect than they currently enjoy.”

Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta) strenuously objected to the Redskins deal, called the health board’s decision “just a blatant disregard of the state law,” noted that Tracy Thorne-Begland’s appointment to Richmond’s General District Court bench is a temporary one that lawmakers can reverse next year and suggested that the circuit judges who put him on the bench may not be reappointed.

“They ought to run for the state legislature, not try to make legislative decisions that are up to the General Assembly,” said Landes, referring to the court and health board.

Farnsworth said the General Assembly is getting a well-deserved comeuppance after a session dominated by highly contentious social issues. One bill in particular, which originally called for women seeking an abortion to undergo a vaginal ultrasound, was lampooned on national television.

“They have a credibility problem because the lawmakers made Virginia a national laughingstock,” Farnsworth said. “Extreme lawmaking builds up a lot of resentment.”

Even the Redskins deal can be seen as a reaction to that social legislation inasmuch as it weakened the General Assembly’s public standing and may have emboldened McDonnell to cross it, Farnsworth said.

“The governor has calculated quite reasonably, it seems, that he’s going to win the fight in the court of public opinion on the Redskins,” Farnsworth said. “Remember, the legislature crossed the governor first. . . . [H]e warned the Republican majority about legislative overreach, and they ignored his yellow light and went full speed ahead.”

House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) hardly thinks his chamber, which kept the state budget process alive while the evenly divided Senate was deadlocked in a power struggle, has done anything to encourage disrespect.

“I think the House really shone this year,” he said. “When everyone else was coming off the reservation, when everyone else was bickering, when everyone else was screaming about the budget, we were the consistent body that kept sitting down and were willing to negotiate.”

Deservedly or not, plenty of lawmakers think they’ve been kicked around. Sen. Stephen H. Martin (R-Chesterfield) was not personally bothered by the Redskins deal, which McDonnell said would keep the team’s corporate headquarters and jobs in Virginia. But he called the health board’s decision “a direct affront” and described the judicial appointment as “an affront to the legislature.”

Of course, one person’s affront is another’s reprieve.

Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington) was upset by the Redskins deal but welcomed the reversals that put Thorne-Begland on the bench and spared existing abortion clinics from having to meet hospital-style architectural standards.

“In both of these cases, what you had was something that the General Assembly did, in my mind, unwisely and ideologically that was reversed . . . by other reviewing bodies,” Brink said.

Albo was put off by all three upsets, even though he had strongly supported Thorne-Begland’s nomination.

“I love the guy. I think he’s going to make a great judge,” Albo said. “But the process is important.”

Albo said he fears that there will be a backlash against Thorne-Begland when the General Assembly considers reappointing him next session.

“Some people might say, ‘I voted for him before, but I can’t encourage that kind of behavior’ by the Circuit Court,” Albo said. “Things can come back and haunt people.”

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