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Justice in Virginia

Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page A18

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PERHAPS AS early as today, the Virginia Senate will take up an important reform to the commonwealth's system for reviewing criminal convictions. The bill, already approved by the House of Delegates, responds to an ongoing threat to constitutional rights in Virginia: the large number of defendants who effectively lose their chance to appeal because their attorneys miss filing deadlines. Unlike most states, Virginia has rules that offer little opportunity for second chances, even when a defendant is blameless. Yet the Virginia attorney general's office has opposed the bill, calling it unnecessary. And in a Senate committee hearing on Monday, a representative of the state's Supreme Court raised concerns as well, arguing that a high court decision late last year fixed the problem. In fact, the court's decision did not solve the problem. The Senate, however, can begin to do so by sending this much-needed legal change to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), who supports the measure, for his signature.

Hundreds of convicts a year are losing their right to appeal their convictions or sentences because of attorneys' mistakes over which they have no control. The bill is a modest effort at repair. It would not grant any convicts the ability to file an appeal to which they should not already be entitled. It would not relax the rules that cause the courts to dismiss appeals when a document is filed even one day late. But for those inmates now being irrationally denied the chance to appeal, it would make it easier and less costly to remedy what everyone -- the attorney general and the courts included -- concedes is a denial of their constitutional rights. Given the magnitude of the problem, passing this bill should not be a difficult choice.

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