The Virginia General Assembly today scrapped its plan for strict, income-based standards for the appointment of free legal counsel in criminal cases, adopting instead more flexible criteria that avoid the risk of a constitutional challenge.
Meeting for its annual one-day veto session, the legislature approved almost all of Gov. Charles S. Robb's proposed changes on bills passed during the 1983 session that ended in February. The only debate came on an amendment, offered by Robb, to limit door prizes at charity raffles to $10,000. That proposal was defeated in the House of Delegates.
Both houses easily approved a Robb proposal to knock out budget language that would have restricted access to state-paid, court-appointed attorneys to defendants whose incomes fall below a limit tied to the federal poverty index. The limit would have been $5,828 for a single person and $11,446 for a defendant with a family of four.
The income limits, approved on the last day of the session with no debate, were attacked by criminal law experts and civil liberties groups as arbitrary and possibly unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly found that states must pay for the legal defense of criminal defendants who can't afford their own attorneys.
In all but four jurisdictions Virginia relies on a system of court-appointed attorneys, paid a minimal fee set by the state, to provide legal counsel for poor defendants. Criteria for appointing state-paid attorneys varies from court to court.
The cost of court-appointed attorneys has risen dramatically in Virginia, as elsewhere. The Senate Finance Committee developed the income limits to reduce the number of eligible defendants.
By linking those standards to a strict income test, the legislature overlooked a defendant's financial obligations--food, shelter and other necessities--as well as the actual cost of hiring a lawyer for a particular case, critics said. A number of lawyers wrote to Robb, urging him to reject or amend the proposal.
At Robb's urging, the legislature today revised the budget bill to require judges to review a defendant's full financial picture, including a spouse's earnings, and outstanding debts as well as assets that could be used to pay for an attorney. The final decision to appoint a state-paid attorney will remain with the judge.
"It is better than it was," said Del. Theodore Morrison (D-Newport News), one of the few legislators who had critized the earlier measure. "But the net result is that it leaves things the way they were."
The lawmakers today approved other changes in the budget, including a provision to give sheriffs, court clerks and other constitutional officers a 4.5 percent pay increase effective Oct. 1. These state-paid officials and their employes were not included in a plan giving other state employes a pay raise next fall when the state assumes the workers' share of their contributions to the retirement system.
The proposed $10,000 limit on raffle prizes provided the only controversy of the brief session. The amendment, tagged onto a bill on bingo audits, had been offered by Robb after some legislators expressed concern that a recent court ruling in Virginia Beach would effectively limit prizes to $1,000.
That ruling, now under appeal, had applied the state's $1,000 limit now imposed on bingo games to raffles as well. The $10,000 proposal was designed as a compromise, but some legislators suggested it was arbitrary and could exclude expensive cars, even houses, as door prizes.
"What can you really get for $10,000?" argued Del. David Brickley (D-Prince William). In rejecting the amendment 57-to-40, the House sent the original bill limiting the amount charged for bingo audits back to Robb who, legislators said, is ready to sign it.