It can get very quiet in the Virginia House of Delegates when Ted Morrison rises to speak. Legislators flip through their bill books to see which piece of legislation the Newport News Democrat plans to kill next.
At 47, Del. Theodore V. Morrison Jr. holds a power unique in the General Assembly. He is chairman of one committee and lords over two others; he has close ties to Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry) who nods toward Morrison to get a message across to the membership.
But the silence Morrison commands is more than testament to his position. It is also an homage to a killer instinct in Morrison, his ability to dissect legislation, to seize on imperfect draftmanship and, once the weak spot is found, to turn the knife, slowly and scornfully.
The fear he inspires follows him onto the floor from the House Courts of Justice Committee where Morrison, a conservative with a strong commitment to civil liberties, has become the focus of the charge that defense lawyers in the legislature control the flow of crime bills.
Sitting at the right hand of the chairman through committee meetings that last into the night and on through the weekend, his unsmiling face clouded by smoke from an ever-present cigarette, Morrison chews through bills -- and witnesses -- like a power lawn mower through grass.
To one delegate who wanted to put minimum mandatory sentences on all felonies, he asked: "Do you have any data on how this would affect the prisons?" The delegate shook his head.
"I thought not," came the swift reply before the measure was dispatched to the committee graveyard.
To another who argued that her bill must be constitutional because 22 other states have adopted it, Morrison asked, with some exasperation: "Don't you have any other answer than that?"
To his critics, among them frustrated prosecutors and ad-hoc citizen groups, Morrison is first and foremost a defense lawyer -- he estimates 25 percent of his law practice is criminal -- who puts the interests of his clients above those of the citizenry.
That charge was raised most pointedly this year in a letter distributed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which jumped on Morrison for undertaking a seminar before the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association on "Defending Drunk Drivings as DWI Driving While Intoxicated Laws Get Tougher."
"The audacity of his being on that justice committee and then going out there to defend the drunk driver is an outrageous conflict of interest, " said Paul O'Brien, a 20-year-old MADD activist. "His attitude seems to be -- 'I make the laws and now I'll find the loopholes to make the bucks."
The charge infuriates Morrison and his supporters. "Ted feels a defendant ought to get a fair trial," says Sen. Robert Scott, another Democrat from Newport News. "There are a lot of people who don't believe that. They think that anything that comes between an arrest and a conviction is an inconvenience."
In a climate increasingly conducive to law-and-order bills, Morrison belongs to the old school that holds a profound distrust of government and its police powers. He argues forcefully against the expansion of those powers -- to wiretap, to make exceptions to the rule against illegal seizure of evidence.
His outspoken opposition on these issues have made him, for the past two years, the single most significant opponent to Gov. Charles S. Robb's crime package. It has also made him the unlikely hero of the American Civil liberties Union, a lobby not often viewed kindly by conservatives in the Virginia General Assembly.
"Ted takes his oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States seriously, which is not something you can say about all members of the legislature," says Judy Goldberg, an ACLU lobbyist. "You never hear him say -- 'This might be unconstitutional, but let's let the courts decide it.' "
Several years ago, Morrison took heat from women's groups for his treatment of a bill reforming Virginia's sexual assault laws. But on this bill as well as others, some say that Morrison's objections were well founded and that the result was better legislation.
"He was right on the rape bills," said Goldberg. "He came out anti-woman but in fact he was pro-civil liberties.
In defense of his principles, Morrison is uncompromising -- and often cold and ruthless. Witnesses before his committee complain of being bullied and belittled for their lack of knowledge about the law. As a result, some legislators say they have learned to stay away.
A year ago, a Fairfax County couple came to see Morrison to discuss changes in drunk-driving laws, five weeks after their daughter was killed by a drunk driver. "He was abrasive to the point of being egotistical," said Louis Herzog whose wife, Patti, was so offended she walked out of the meeting. "All he kept saying was 'What do you want me to do?' It was a shock to me the way he acted . . . like I was some sort of gnat he wanted to brush away."
Morrison remembers the meeting and remembers that he was -- as always -- busy. But he called the charge of insensitivity unfair. "If I was insensitive," he said recently, "maybe it was because I didn't agree with everything they said."
Since he came here in 1968, the son of a popular Episcopalian minister and grandson of a Mississippi congressman, Morrison has followed an independent course. His entry into politics, he says, was accidental; his success, say Newport News politicians, was in part due to his good looks and blue eyes, prominently advertised on a color postcard widely distributed in the port city.
It wasn't long before Morrison made a name for himself. He argued against the state's habitual offender statute and against a bill requiring Virginia voters to give their social security numbers at the polls. "I made a speech against everyone being treated like a number," he said.
His outspokenness -- "unwise for a freshman" -- caught the eye of Philpott, a Southside delegate on his way to controlling the House. An earlier patron had already helped put Morrison on the Finance Committee, which he now chairs; Philpott managed to get him on Courts of Justice, but more importantly on the State Code Commission where he has honed his vast knowledge of the state's laws and its legal system.
On many issues, Morrison shares the conservative views of the ruling hierarchy in the House, a positionthat often puts him at odds with more restless members of his own generation. But he is also a maverick, striking out as he sees fit, seemingly without regard to party or political winds.
In a state that is fond of political litmus tests, Morrison eludes definition: he opposes the Equal Rights Amendment, but supports a Martin Luther King state holiday. On the Finance Committee, he hews to the line of fiscal conservatism and generally votes against giving localities any new taxes. Luxury taxes, he says, are a "gutless" way to raise revenue.
His independence has made him a politician unlike most others in the legislature. He rarely lobbies for his positions, relying instead on his power to persuade. "He's not chummy, but professionally he is easy to get along with," said Scott. "He has ideas he is going to express. If you agree with him, fine; if not, fine."
But as some have learned at their own risk, Morrison is not a man to be treated lightly. His pride is easily piqued -- as for instance, last year, when after Gov. Charles S. Robb inferred that Morrison put in a bill to get publicity. It took several days, a telephone call followed by a letter of apology before Morrison calmed down. In the meantime, he was uncharacteristically absent from an important Courts committee because, he said, "I was emotionally upset."
One legislator who is not fond of Ted Morrison -- and there are many sore over the way he has treated them and their legislation -- calls him a "spoiled brat." Last week, when a local bill of Morrison's died abruptly in a Senate committee, one member noted: "He has killed too many of their bills over the years. His problem was he didn't have a single friend up there."
And back in Newport News, there were complaints last year -- aired during an unexpected primary challenge -- that Morrison had been highhanded over the reappointment of a local juvenile court judge who had charged one of Morrison's clients with contempt. The judge's term lapsed, although he was finally reappointed. Morrison denies any conflict but the issue upset some.
As a legislator, Morrison is entitled to have his law cases starting 30 days before the General Assembly goes into session continued. That has meant lengthy delays in some cases, causing concern to prosecutors.
In one case involving an accused child abuser, the defendant first appeared in court in May 1981. Morrison requested a continuance in December -- before the assembly convened in mid-January -- and it was not tried until May 1982. "I was very concerned at the time," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Cathy Krinick, "I'm always concerned when a young child is involved because their ability to remember is impaired with the passage of time."
Morrison says the delay was not entirely his fault and argues, as do other legislators, that the problem can't be avoided with a part-time legislature.
Other lawyers in Newport News, asking not to be identified, say Morrison's arrogance creeps into his courtroom behavior, where his influence is not lost on local judges, who are appointed by the legislature.
This year, since the primary fight, some say they see signs of a mellower Morrison. He has been more careful to tend to constituent affairs, as for instance, his introduction to the House recently of "Little Miss Virginia Charm" (a young resident of his district) and two busloads of seniors citizens whose votes had helped him win his election.
It was a moment his colleagues relished and which they rose in unison to applaud. "He very seldom introduces people and always fusses when we do," explained Del. Donald McGlothlin (D-Grundy). Finally, after years of feeling his disdain for the niceties of political life, other legislators could say that the stern Bill Killer was on their level.