When the Virginia legislature convened last month, all the state's major civil rights groups lined up behind a bill to reform the state's outdated voter registration laws. But last week, those groups were dumbfounded to discover that a House committee had killed the voting bill without notifying the public that the measure was coming up for consideration.

"I didn't find out about it until the next morning when I picked up my newspaper at my hotel," said the bill's sponsor, freshman Del. William Robinson (D-Norfolk). "If we don't have a system that works better than this, we're in big trouble."

Robinson wasn't the only legislator wondering last week how the General Assembly conducts its business. As the House and Senate scrambled to meet new early deadlines for winding up committee business, scores of key bills were passed or killed without anything resembling public hearing or debate.

The result was a legislative process that one lawmaker described as "total confusion and turmoil." Committee and subcommittee meetings were hastily called at odd hours in odd places, with public agendas rarely posted. Critics say the ensuing chaos offered a classic opportunity for legislative leaders and a handful of well-wired special interest groups to work their will by suppressing debate and leaving opponents in the dark.

"As the system becomes confused, it tends to strengthen the people in leadership positions," said William Pound, director of state services for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "And inevitably, the people who have informed and skilled representation are also advantaged in the process."

That appeared to be the case last week throughout the Capitol. For example:

* When the House Corporations, Insurance, and Banking Committee approved a hotly controversial bill to deregulate interest rates on credit card accounts, scores of bankers packed the room in a show of support, but consumer advocates were nowhere to be found. R.R. Foutz, an AFL-CIO lobbyist who had planned to speak against the bill, said later that he was unable to find out from committee clerks when the bill was to be taken up.

* Dels. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) and Mary Marshall (D-Arlington) were promoting bills that would permit voters in their Northern Virginia counties to elect school board members. But the two legislators were absent last week when both bills died in a House Privileges and Elections subcommittee. "I'm not even sure they actually met," Marshall said. "The bills got shuffled sideways."

* A lobbyist for a social welfare group heard word of a joint subcommittee meeting that had been set to chart policy for coping with $122 million in federal cutbacks to the state's Medicaid program. But the meeting was not listed on any legislative calendar. The lobbyist finally uncovered the meeting only after canvassing most of the 10 floors in the maze-like General Assembly Building. "It's not that it was a secret meeting," one Senate aide said later. "They just won't tell anybody when or where they're going to meet."

* Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke) declared himself a subcommittee of one when no other legislators showed up for an early-morning meeting of a Courts and Justice panel he heads. Asked later how his one-man meeting went, Cranwell replied with a smile, "We did whatever we had to do. Some of the bills we passed, some of them we rejected."

Although legislative pandemonium is nothing new here, many legislators say the problem has been exacerbated in recent years by a proliferation of subcommittees that allows small groups of lawmakers to determine the fate of bills with relatively little scrutiny.

In the past, subcommittees were rare and were generally used as burial grounds for legislation that full committees did not want to address. But this year, in the House alone, there are 20 committees and 63 subcommittees--more than enough to give every one of the 66 majority Democrats a personal fiefdom.

"I tend to think a lot of it is an ego-satisfaction factor," said Del. Clinton Miller (R-Shenandoah). "It gives these people a structured position of power and makes them look good back home."

The profusion of subcommittees creates a perpetual dilemma for legislators and lobbyists who find that four or five of the bills they are following may be under consideration simultaneously in different corners of the Capitol.

"You never know when a subcommittee on a particular bill will meet, and essentially they meet whenever a subcommittee chairman can get them together," says Judy Goldberg, veteran lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It could be when they're standing around in the hall."

Legislative leaders say last week's confusion is inevitable for a part-time citizen legislature that this year must dispose of 1,403 bills and 268 resolutions in a two-month period. But even House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry) and Majority Leader Thomas Moss (Norfolk) are expressing concern over this year's situation. Meanwhile, veteran Arlington delegate Marshall has called for a revision of House rules to improve public access to the legislature, including requirements for public notice of the time, place and agenda of all meetings.

"Everybody has good intentions," Marshall says. "But the public has not been able to be heard."