It is both the tradition and termperament of Virginia statesmen to attach bills introduced by their honorable colleagues with the gentility of English lords.
It came as some surprise therefore when Sen. Adelard Brault (D-Fairfax) rose to the royal red carpet of the State Senate this week to bludgeon both a bill and the ethics of the legislator who introduced it.
"This is the most crass piece of legislation I have seen in the 16 years I've been in the Senate," said Brault, provoking nervous titters in the chamber. "The intention of introducing this bill was to feather a lawyer's nest."
The bill that drew Brault's legislative ire will financially benefit plaintiffs in automobile accident suits, as well as the lawyers who represent them. It was introduced by Del. George Allen (D-Richmond), known here as the "King of Torts," whose law firm -- Allen, Allen, Allen and Allen -- specializes in representing accident victims.
"I don't want to mislead anybody. We are a negligence firm," said Allen today after his bill survived a rocky, three-day passage through the Senate. Allen denied that his bill, which remains only to be signed by Gov. John Dalton, was introduced to benefit his law practice.
Other lawmakers in the General Assembly said they were troubled over the appearance of conflict of interest, particularly after recent newspaper articles have raised questions about the ethics of lawyer-legislators introducing bills that benefit their own law practices.
During Senate debate over Allen's bill Sen. John Chichester (R-Fredericksburg) said when he first read the measure he "thought it was a joke." He was interrupted by Sen. Willard Moody (D-Portsmouth), a lawyer and a supporter of the bill, who charged that Chichester's opposition was due to the fact that he is an insurance agent. The state's insurance industry, which stands to lose money from plaintiff suits generated by the bill, was solidly opposed to the measure.
Sen. Brault, whose law firm also represents insurance companies, said his firm represents enough personal injury clients to more than balance the scale.
"It seemed to me to be a battle between two special interest groups -- those who represent plaintiffs in personal injury recoveries and those that represent the insurance industry," said Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria) who supported the Allen bill along with 12 other lawyer-legislators among the 20 who voted on the bill in the Senate.
If the passage of the Allen bill sheds light on the conflict that parttime lawmakers face in dealing with legislation that directly or indirectly affects their business interests, it was also a rare opportunity to see the political arm-twisting that normally occurs in Virginia politics behind closed doors.
The Allen bill was initially killed by a vote of 19-17 when it was first brought up in the Senate on Wednesday. After the vote, emissaries from the House where Allen dwells were seen scurrying across the Capitol to the Senate chambers. Before the recess, Sen. Madison Marye (D-Montgomery), a service station operator who voted to kill the bill, introduced a motion to hold it for another day and another vote.
On Thursday the bill was brought up again. This time, however, the vote was 20-15 to approve it.
"I just had a few friends over there," said Allen, when asked how he managed to reverse his political fortunes. "I'm sure y'all can guess what that means."
But the battle over the bill did not end there. Sen. William Parkerson (D-Henrico), a lawyer and an opponent of the bill, made a motion to hold it over for yet another day. But because Senate rules require unanimous consent to reconsider a bill twice, Parkerson said he did not attempt to get the bill voted on again today, a step that sent it to the governor.
"It's a bad bill," said Sen. Brault, taking a parting shot. "And I hope something bad happens to it."