Four days after one of his clients lost a case before the Virginia State Supreme Court. Portsmouth lawyer Willard J. Moody took the cause to another lorum. He introduced into the Virginia State Senate a one-paragraph bill that would overturn the ruling and give his clients what they lost in the courts.
The action - which an opposing attorney has charged is "clearly an abuse of power by an elected representative" - is, according to Moody, neither improper nor uncommon in the lawyer-dominated, 140-member Virginia General Assembly. A member of the legislature for 20 years and chairman of both the Senate Rules Committee and the Democratic caucus. Moody said the other day that he is dumbfounded at criticism of his action.
"I don't think that anybody who says that (the action was improper) understnads how the Assembly works and the obligations we have," Moody said. All Moody said he did was to perform a service for "my constituents."
Many legislators here prvately dispute Moody's reasoning. They say his action illustrates how easily a lawyer - or any businessman for that matter - can attempt to use his position in the legislature to benefit his clients or himself.
In the current session, Del. George E. Allen (D-Richmond), chairman of the House committee that considers court matters and head of a law firm that specializes in automobile accident suits, is pressing for a bill that would make it easier for some of the clients he typically represents to win their cases.
Del. Donald G. Pendleton (D-Amherst), who represented a malodorous paper plant before the state's Air Pollution Control Board, has intoduced a measure that air pollution control officials feared would weaken their ability to regulate such plants.
Del. Frandk M. Salyton (D-Halifax), whose South Boston law firm is on a retainer to Virginia Electric and Power Co., attempted to win passage of a bill strongly supported by Vepco and others that would have allowed the State Corporation Commission to set the electirc reates state and local governments pay for electricity.
Sen. Nathan H. Miller (R-Rockingham), whose law firm represents the Virginia Association of Electirc Cooperatives, one of the most active lobbying groups in Richmond, votes regularly on utility bills. Never in his six years in the Assembly has Miller disqualified himself from voting on such a bill, he said last week.
Lawyers are not alone, as Moody and others point out. This week Del. Earl E. Bell (D-Loudoun), a Leesburg automobie dealer, voted for a measure that would regulate automobile dealers and would, he said, benefit his business. That represented a change from Bell's stand last year when he spoke in favor of a simiar bill but abstained form voting on it.
"I abstained last year and the bill lost by one vote," Bell said. "But this year I've sat up there and have seen banking directors vote on banking bills and attorneys vote on attorney bills . . . so I decided to hell with it: Automobile dealers can vote on automobile dealer bills."
Bell's statement reflects the dilemma many Assembly members say they constantly face in deciding what constitutes a conflict of interest. There is no precise legal difinition f a conflict of interest in the Virginia legislature and there are few rules governing legislative conduct in the field.
THe state Senate has a rule requiring its member sot abstain when they have "an immediate, private or personal interest" in a measure before the chamber. But last week the Senate spent a half hour debating what that rule means.
In the end, only seven of approximately 30 legislators who have some connection to either banking or insurance industry groups disqualified themselves from voting on the pending measure - a bill that would limit insurance sales by banking organizations.
That was a sharp departure from a session last year when so many senators disqualified themselves from voting on a simiiar measure that supporters could not muster the minimum number of votes, 16, required to win passage of any measure.
Voting, however, is only part of the conflict problem, according to Jody Goldberg, chief lobbyist for Common Cause of Virginia. There is currently no prohibition on intoducing legislation, regardles of whether the proposed law affects a legislator's personal interest, she said.
Some legislators, including lawyer Allen, freely concede they "probably have" introduced bills that would assist in their private law practive. "That's the setup of the legislature," Allen said the other day.
Lawyers dominate the Virginia legislature. Fifty-severn per cent of the legislators are lawyers, hte highest percentage of any state legislature in the nation, according to one survey released earlier this year. Allen and other lawyers in the Assembly say it is only natural that they should press for changes in laws they discover in their law practice and believe unreasonable.
Del. Thomas W. Moss (D-Norfolk), for instance, represents numerous restaurants during liquor license procedings before state Alcoholic Beverage Control officers and frequently offers bills that some legislators say would liberalize the state's liquor laws. But Moss, who is chairman of a committee that hears many of the bills, says his legislation actually benefits "the general public" and no particular restaruateur, thus it doesn't present a conflict for him to offer such legislation.
That's the very point that has made a bill introduced by Moody, with the backing of three Norfolk senators, so controversial at this session. It would clearly benefit a Portsmouth sightseeing boat operator that Moody has represented in Norfolk Circuit Court and later before the State Corporation Commission.
Moody's client, "Captain" Walter M. McDowell of Portsmouth, sought to block a Newport News tour-boat operator from picking up passengers in Norfolk for a competing tour of the port of Hampton Roads. Arguing before the State Corporation Comission, Moody contended that the Newport News tour boat needed specific authorization from the SCC to land in Norfolk.
The SCC agreed with Moody, but the state Supreme Court, to which the case was appealed by the Newport News boat operator, rejected the argument. The court said a "grandfathr clause" in a sightseeing boat bill exempted the Newport News boatman from regulations. Moody did not argue the case before the Supreme Court, but he is listed in notices sent out by the court as one of the lawyers involved in the case.
On Jan. 14 the Supreme Court rejected a motion to reconsider the case and four days later Moody offered a bill that would require the Newport News boat operator to get approval to bring his boat to Norfolk.
Moody contends he offered the bill partly because the SCC wanted its powers clarified and partly because one of his "constituents" wanted it.
However, Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), the Senate's majority leader, said, "I have no problem with (Moody's introduction of the bill). In fact, Brault said, Moody should be "admired" for placing his name on the bill. "He's been open and aboveboard about it. It would have been the simplest thing in the world for him to have gone around and got someone else ot put it in for him, but he didn't.
Brault said Moody can simply not vote on the bill when it is brought to the Senate floor - a step Moody said he plans to take.
"I really regret that anyone would interpret this bill as something improper," Moody said the other day. But he said questions about his role had been "quite disturbing" to him and he has heard discussions that the Senate may need a new rule to restrict bill introductions. "That may not be a bad idea," he said.
Moody and most legislators here say, however, that "as long as you have a part-time legislature" such conflict problems will continue. If a lawyer were to be prohibited from voting on a matter that might affect one of his clients he would become "virtually useless" in Richmond, Moody argued.
The lawyer-legislators invariably say that their ties with clients did not affect their legislation or their votes in the Assembly. Del. Slayton, for instance, went on the House floor last week to decry suggestions by lobbyists for local governments that his ties to Vepco unfluenced his decision to push the regulation bill. The bill was narrowly defeated despite his claims that his $75-a-month retainer from Vepco was not a factor in his support for the bill.
Del. Pendleton said his representing the paper plant did not influence his decision to intoduce the pollution bill, which has since been amended to exempt the air pollution control board from its provisions. Sen. Miller said his relationship with the Electric Cooperative does not influence him on utility legislation.