- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

RICHMOND Despite the new Republican majority in the Virginia General Assembly, liberal Democrats have succeeded in getting several criminal law bills through the House of Delegates something they have failed to do in the past.

The difference, both sides of the debates agree, is that the bills' sponsors have, for the first time, come forth with compromises that have found support from a majority.

For the last eight years, Delegate L. Karen Darner, Arlington Democrat, has introduced a bill that would legalize sodomy between consenting adults. This year, instead of proposing legalizing sodomy altogether, her bill called for reducing the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor. For the first time ever, the bill made it out of the House Courts of Justice Committee, and then passed the full House, 50-49, this week.

She said she began talking with lawmakers at the end of last year's session, trying to see if there was a possible middle ground, and from those discussions developed this year's bill. She still would like to legalize sodomy, but was ready to compromise just to get the felony conviction which removes a person's right to vote off the books.

Likewise, for the last few years, Delegate James F. Almand, Arlington Democrat, has asked the Courts of Justice Committee to allow unlimited time for death-row prisoners to appeal based on new evidence, rather than the current 21 days.

This year, however, he came prepared with a substitute bill, which would cap appeals which must be made within three years at a total of two. Mr. Almand put the substitute bill forth when he realized the original bill was not going to pass.

The bill passed the House Tuesday 73-25.

He said he would give whatever survives the Senate and lawmakers agree the time period for appeals may be lessened to a year or 18 months and the governor a few years to see how it works out.

"Compromise is the art of the possible," Mr. Almand said. "When you try some things without success, then you look for alternatives."

Delegate John H. "Jack" Rust Jr., Fairfax Republican and a member of the committee, said this year's bills are substantially different than in the past, and that has made the difference. The bill Mr. Almand submitted the past few years could have effectively ended the death penalty by offering unending appeals. And there's a far cry between legalizing sodomy and reducing it from a felony charge.

But just as important, he and other party leaders said, is that this year, for maybe the first time ever, the bills got a full hearing in the House Courts of Justice committee.

The Sunday night before "crossover," the deadline day by which House bills have to be passed and sent to the Senate and vice versa, is traditionally known as the "night of the long knives." That's when dozens of bills that have stacked up in the House Courts of Justice Committee are killed without a hearing.

"In the past and I think this was partially by design as well as the crush [of legislation] things were pushed off to the end," said Delegate William J. Howell, Stafford Republican and co-chairman of the committee along with Mr. Almand.

This year, he said, Mr. Howell and Mr. Almand made sure the committee heard the details and explanation for every bill.

"If someone puts in a bill, even though we may think it's crazy, it deserves to be heard," Mr. Howell said. It also helps that the committee had about 300 bills this year a hundred fewer than in some years past and that subcommittee chairman got to work earlier, he said.

Having a full hearing allowed Ms. Darner to explain that sodomy with a prostitute is a lesser offense than sodomy with one's spouse under current law an argument that convinced several delegates to support her bill. The bill still needs to go before the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

Two bills that would make it easier for some felons to have their voting rights restored also passed the committee and the full House this year, and supporters say giving the bill a full hearing helped.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith, Salem Republican, said this may be the first time in 20 years that every criminal-justice bill has received a hearing.

In some ways, the incremental approach is the same move conservatives have used. For years, abortion foes have chipped away at the ease of getting abortions in Virginia, and are now poised to win a third battle for a 24-hour waiting period between the time a woman seeks and has an abortion.

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