RICHMOND, JAN. 23 -- The Virginia Senate today censured Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk) for unethical conduct, the harshest penalty it has imposed on one of its own in more than half a century.

Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who presides over the Senate, said the 25-to-14 vote for censure was "the strongest possible action short of expulsion," although censure carries no penalties. Babalas retains his seniority as the third-ranking member of the Senate and his chairmanship of the important Rules Committee.

The vote climaxed a year of often-acrimonious debate that produced a spectacle of name-calling and finger-pointing that jarred the normally clubby atmosphere of the all-male, 40-member Senate.

It did not resolve a continuing debate in the General Assembly about how part-time legislators, many of whom are lawyers, bankers, physicians or teachers, can carry out their elective duties without running into conflicts with their full-time jobs. While that question remains alive, many senators said today's vote proves that the Senate is capable of disciplining errant members.

The proceeding was set in motion last January when an independent Senate ethics advisory panel found that Babalas had "willfully violated" the state's conflict of interest law by voting to help kill a bill that, if enacted, would have harmed one of his legal clients.

Acting on that report, the attorney general charged Babalas with two counts of a criminal misdemeanor. But at a trial last August, one count was dismissed and Babalas was acquitted on the other.

Babalas unsuccessfully contended that, because he was acquitted, any action by the Senate would constitute double jeopardy. But Babalas was reprimanded for violating the internal rules of the Senate, not the state conflict law from which the criminal proceeding arose. There would have been no violation of Senate rules had he abstained.

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles issued a statement that said "the conflict-of-interest issue has been troubling and difficult for the entire General Assembly for two years. The fact that it has caused such concern is, I think, an indication of the high standards of conduct traditionally observed by Virginia legislators."

The statement did not indicate whether the governor thought censure was appropriate.

The only one of the eight Northern Virginia senators not voting for censure was Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William).

Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), who as chairman of the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee conducted an investigation that led to a recommendation of censure, urged its adoption "for the sake of history, for the sake of future members."

Turning from one side of the chamber to the other, as if addressing a jury, Gartlan said "the popular questions" that are asked about a public official -- "what did he know and when did he know it?" -- applied. "Senator Babalas had a personal interest" and he knew the legislation would affect one of his clients "in a significant and special way" and he should have disqualified himself from voting, Gartlan said.

Gartlan also said it is "fair to consider" whether an apology Babalas offered on the Senate floor last week was "extended in good faith or as part of of his ongoing strategy of self-defense."

"Censure is not a substitute for having a strong conflict-of-interest law," agreed Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), "especially one that imposes criminal penalties under certain circumstances."

A joint Senate-House subcommittee studying the existing law voted 6 to 2 Thursday night in favor of a draft revision that would bar criminal prosecutions for legislators for votes they cast.

Babalas is the first member of the Virginia General Assembly ever censured, although between 1782 and 1926 four members of the House of Delegates and two senators were expelled.

An amendment that would have trivialized the action, by replacing the word "censure" with "error in judgment," was defeated 24 to 15.

Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt), who introduced the censure resolution after Wilder ruled the Privileges and Elections Committee's report urging censure was in the wrong form, called on the senators to "forget" about friendships and "vote on the issue."

During a rambling, 30-minute defense of his action, Babalas maintained that he did "nothing secretive, I was not hiding anything" when he voted in 1985 against a bill that would have placed an 8 percent ceiling on the points (interest) that unregulated second-mortgage lenders could charge their customers.

Babalas said he repeatedly informed his legislative colleagues that one of his legal clients was a second-mortgage company, later identified as Landbank Equity Corp., a now-bankrupt Virginia Beach firm that is the target of state and federal fraud investigations. Babalas collected more than $60,000 in legal fees from Landbank.

"At no single time did I ever hide anything . . . or ask any senator, 'I've got a bill here and I want you to put it in,' " he said.

Babalas predicted that passage of the censure resolution would "sound the death knell of the citizen legislature," and create a "quagmire" of confusion.

He repeated the warning of Sen. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D-Franklin), who sponsored the rejected amendment, saying that if Babalas' vote was found unethical, it would create a precedent that might make it impossible for lawyers to vote on any legal matters, bankers to consider financial legislation, teachers to vote on the state budget that contains their salaries, insurance agents to vote on insurance measures, doctors to vote on medical and malpractice issues, restaurant owners to vote on liquor laws, and so on.

Sen. William E. Fears (D-Accomack), who was presiding as chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee when Babalas cast the vote in question, recalled that "no one raised any arguments against" Babalas' participation after he had disclosed his legal representation of a second-mortgage company.

After the vote, Babalas retreated to the privacy of the cloakroom, but returned after a minute to embrace his wife Lillie, who had watched the two-hour proceeding from the gallery.

Asked if the disciplinary action would mean that he would not seek election to a fifth term this fall, as he had indicated earlier, Babalas said, "I'm tired . . . . I live hour-by-hour, day-by-day."

But then, the 64-year-old self-made millionaire lawyer, the son of Greek immigrants who worked his way through Harvard University and the University of Virginia law school, said forcefully, "Pete Babalas has never taken a dive, he's not one to walk from any fight." He suffers from bone cancer.