Virginia's attorney general today made a rare appearance in the General Assembly to fight for a bill that would give prosecutors the right to appeal some criminal court decisions that go against them.
After a spirited, hour-long debate that pitted defense attorneys and civil rights groups against Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles, a House committee approved two bills giving both sides a temporary victory in a battle that has spanned three legislative sessions.
Baliles found himself in a sparring match with Del. Theodore V. Morrison Jr. (D-Newport News), one of the best known defense attorneys in the legislature and an opponent of the move that would allow voters to amend the state's constitution.
"It takes a step in the direction of fairness for the public," Baliles told the House Committee on Privileges and Elections.
"It would just afford an opportunity for the prosecutor to take advantage of a defendant," charged Del. Royston Jester III (R-Lynchburg) who served as a prosecutor for much of his legal career. "One thing the public wants today is quick justice. You would be merely dragging out the ultimate result of the case."
Today's action was the latest step in a three-year effort by Baliles to get the legislature to approve changes leading to appeals of decisions made in pretrial hearings. The bill proposed by Baliles would give the legislature broad latitude in writing guidelines for prosecutorial appeals.
Neither of the bills that passed the House committee today would allow appeals of convictions in criminal cases, however.
Under Virginia law, a bill to amend the Constitution must pass two consecutive legislative sessions and then be put before the voters. The Baliles bill was passed by the last session and would be put before the voters in November if it passes this one.
But as Baliles and his chief patron on the bill, Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax), walked out of the committee room with smiles of victory, opponents launched a tactical assault. They pulled from their calendar a similar but more restrictive bill that had been introduced this year and shoved it through the committee.
Opponents of the Baliles-supported bill backed the second bill, meaning that approval for either bill will depend on action on the House floor.
The second bill recommends tighter restrictions and requires that all appeals be made before the first witness is sworn in during a bench trial or before the jury is sworn in during a jury trial. It also prohibits appeals in misdemeanor cases.
If the bill favored by Baliles fails in the House, it would have to begin the long, two-session battle all over again -- a possibility that Morrison did not find harmful. "If we kill it, we lose one year. Big deal," he said.
Baliles, a Democratic candidate for governor, said the issue has been debated enough and he wants to see the amendment placed on the ballot this fall.