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Va. Attorney General Hopefuls Spar

Candidates' Background, Schiavo Case at Issue In GOP Primary Race

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page B01

Two Republicans who want to be Virginia's next attorney general sparred yesterday over some of the hottest topics in law, including the Terri Schiavo case and the role of judges.

The two clashed most, however, on issues of biography. Richmond lawyer Steve Baril said his legal credentials make him better qualified to be the state's top attorney, and Del. Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia Beach countered that his experiences as a state politician, former prosecutor and Army veteran give him the edge.

Del. Robert F. McDonnell speaks at a debate at George Mason University as moderator James S. Gilmore III, center, and Steve Baril look on. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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Whoever wins the June 14 Republican primary will stand in the Nov. 8 election against Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who has been unopposed in seeking his party's nomination.

Susan Swecker, Deeds's campaign manager, said he "is ready to face either one the Republicans choose."

The attorney general provides legal advice to the governor, state agencies, the General Assembly and local officials. The office's lawyers, who number more than 100, also act on the state's behalf when criminal convictions are appealed or prisoners sue the state.

The job frequently is a springboard for gubernatorial campaigns, including that of Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, who resigned from the office Feb. 1 to pursue the governor's seat. The debate's moderator, James S. Gilmore III (R), who made the leap from attorney general to governor, nevertheless warned the candidates against viewing the job as a steppingstone.

McDonnell, a lawyer and member of the House of Delegates since 1992, said he would strengthen laws against sexually violent predators and launch "a renewed war on drugs." Baril, president of the Bar Association of the City of Richmond, proposed to hire 100 more state troopers and called for $1 billion in transportation spending every year for the next decade, to be funded by tolls, bonds and the state's general fund.

Baril and McDonnell debated before a room of students and Republican activists at the George Mason University School of Law in an event sponsored by the Republican National Lawyers Association. Questions were submitted by audience members and chosen by Gilmore.

Referring to the controversy over the fate of Schiavo, the Florida woman who died at a hospice 13 days after her feeding tube was removed, Gilmore asked the candidates, "Should a disabled person like this ever be denied food and water and starved to death and die of thirst, even if it's in a medical directive?"

Both said that living wills should be used to determine end-of-life treatment decisions, but that when there is doubt about what a patient would have wanted, doctors should take lifesaving measures.

"Without the ability of the government to protect human life, all other rights do not exist," McDonnell said.

Baril suggested that the attorney general could find a role in such cases by examining whether to appoint an independent guardian. He said lawyers should encourage people to put their wishes in writing.

Gilmore also asked about the role of values, questioning "what happens if judges, for example, begin to stretch beyond what the law really is and attack our values based on political correctness?"

McDonnell said that judges need watching but that a new evaluation system he helped develop will aid the process. It requires that judges submit to evaluations by lawyers, jurors and retired judges before they are up for reappointment.

Baril applauded the new system, but he criticized McDonnell for asking judges to defend specific decisions when they appear for reappointment before the House Courts of Justice Committee, of which McDonnell is chairman.

"It's never been heard of until under my opponent's watch," he said. The new system "makes sure the General Assembly doesn't exceed its bounds in the checks and balances of our system."

After the debate, McDonnell defended the Justice Committee's questions. "It's absolutely appropriate," he said. "The judges themselves agree there's nothing wrong with that."

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