IT TOOK ALMOST the entire 1986 legislative session to come to their senses, but Virginia's lawmakers finally embarrassed themselves enough to kill a terrible bill that would have gutted existing conflict-of-interest standards. If there is egg on a few legislative faces, including those of some General Assembly leaders, credit those members who spoke up against trashing what standards and sanctions are on the books. Republicans in general as well as Northern Virginia's senators of both parties -- including Democrats Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. and Clive K. DuVal II, and Republican Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. -- were eloquent defenders of criminal sanctions for those officeholders who abuse their public trusts for personal gain. The public, too, apparently had strong feelings about what was going on and let their lawmakers know it.

The whole time-consuming performance could have been cut short weeks ago when the legislators first got the jitters over a strict interpretation of the current law. Where was Attorney General Mary Sue Terry when a clarifying opinion could have spared everyone this dreadful exercise? Did her close political ties to House Speaker A. L. Philpott -- a vigorous pusher of amendments to gut the current law -- account for her disappearing act?

Now that the air seems to be clearing, the attorney general has a new opportunity to take a stand for strict, enforceable and understandable standards of conduct for public officials. Virginians who expect and demand high standards of conduct throughout state and local government look to this administration for that reassurance.