Democrats Stack the Deck

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Virginia State Crime Commission is a legislative body established in 1966 and set out in the Code of Virginia (Sec. 30-156 et al.). Its purpose is “to study, report and make recommendations on all areas of public safety and protection.” Following is a sampling of its recent topics of study:

  • Sex trafficking
  • Pre-trial programs
  • Fingerprinting of defendants
  • Decriminalization of simple marijuana possession
  • Asset forfeiture

Virginia law establishes the composition of the Crime Commission as follows:

  • Six members of the House of Delegates to be appointed by the Speaker of the House of Delegates in accordance with the principles of proportional representation contained in the Rules of the House of Delegates
  • Three members of the Senate to be appointed by the Senate Committee on Rules
  • Three nonlegislative citizen members to be appointed by the Governor
  • The Attorney General or his designee

In recent years, there have been four Republican delegates and two Democrats.  The Senate representatives included two Republicans and one Democrat.

For 2020, the composition was set to change due to the Democrats achieving a majority in both houses. For the House Democrats, Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn added Joseph Lindsey of Norfolk and Mike Mullin of James City County and reappointed Charniele Herring, the new House Majority Leader and Paul Krizek of Fairfax.

In the recent past, the Republican members had been Les Adams of Pittsylvania County, Chris Collins of Winchester, Todd Gilbert of Shenandoah County and the Republican floor leader, and Robert Bell of Albemarle County. Under the required proportional arrangement, two of them had to go. Filler-Corn kicked off Gilbert and Bell and reappointed Adams and Collins, the Republicans with the least experience on the Commission. (Collins resigned from the General Assembly in late June to assume a judgeship to which he had been appointed and that seat on the Crime Commission is now vacant.)

I can understand getting rid of Gilbert. He is the Republican attack dog. Even when his party was in the majority, some of his floor speeches criticizing Democrats were pretty nasty. To his credit, however, legislative staff members tell me that he is pleasant and easy to work with. I never had occasion to work with him in a small setting, but I was impressed with the manner in which he chaired the House Subcommittee on Criminal Law. He was polite to other delegates and the public who were presenting bills; he explained the workings of the committee to the audience; and he examined each bill carefully for any possible unintended consequences, even if he was sympathetic to a bill’s overall intent.

It is unfortunate that Filler-Corn did not reappoint Rob Bell to the Commission. He is undoubtedly very conservative on criminal justice issues. During his first few years in the legislature, I became convinced that he had set a personal goal of closing every loophole in the criminal statutes that he had encountered during his years as an assistant prosecutor. But he is not one to make partisan attacks on the House floor. His demeanor is serious, somewhat professorial. In small meetings I attended in which he was involved, I found him to be pleasant, smart, and open to new ideas. I was also impressed with him as a member of the House Courts of Justice Committee and as chair of the subcommittee on criminal law. He insisted on reading every bill carefully and dissecting it, asking lots of questions. To top it off, he is known for asking for as much data as he can get on topics before him.

Although I usually ended up on the opposite side of bills from Bell, I found that his insights and comments made me examine my positions more closely. It would seem that Filler-Corn did not want him on the Crime Commission, asking questions that would make the Democratic members uncomfortable.

Although the Senate was not constrained by law, as was the House, to divide its Crime Commissioners according to party representation, it had done so since at least 1992. That was not to be the case this year. The Crime Commission was one of the advisory bodies for which the Senate Democrats abandoned bi-partisanship and appointed all Democrats.

The appointments made by the Governor will also change the orientation of the Commission. He replaced the sheriff of Lunenburg County, in rural Southside Virginia, with the police chief of Norfolk. Another gubernatorial appointment was Lori Haas, the executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

The Crime Commission has a professional staff of eight that is well respected around Capitol Square. The staff includes two staff attorneys and one member with a PhD. So far, the Democrats have not replaced the executive director who served when Republicans were in the majority.

Although there are multiple proposals on criminal justice reform swirling around (see my summary here), the Crime Commission is not likely to be involved in them this year. In anticipation of the special session scheduled to begin August 18, the Speaker assigned two standing House committees, Courts of Justice and Public Safety, to jointly hold public hearings and discussions on these proposals. The first hearing was yesterday, with the remaining two scheduled for August 29 and August 3. Moreover, the co-chairs of the joint committee, Charniele Herring (Alexandria) and Patrick Hope (Fairfax) made it clear in a Monday op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the time for study is past. They called for “swift, immediate action, especially when we consider the years of efforts by Democratic legislators to pass police reform measures.”

The Crime Commission has met once. It was a short telephone conference meeting in which the members introduced themselves and elected Herring as chair (no surprise). Before adjourning, Herring announced that the executive committee (presumably herself and Sen. John Edwards, the vice-chair) would meet with staff to identify the studies the Commission would undertake for the year.

In the past, recommendations of the Crime Commission carried a great deal of weight and enjoyed bipartisan support because they had been subjected to intense scrutiny and debate by members of varying philosophies. That may not be the case going forward.

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14 responses to “Democrats Stack the Deck

  1. “I can understand getting rid of Gilbert. He is the Republican attack dog. Even when his party was in the majority, some of his floor speeches criticizing Democrats were pretty nasty.” Really? Then in the rest of that paragraph you go on to praise him? Madam Speaker can appoint whom she wishes, but his presence on that group was based on his long experience in the courtroom and the Courts Committee, and if you truly want a panel where consensus can be hammered out, he should be there inside that tent.

    But the behavior of the Senate Democrats was worse, far worse, worse even than their treatment of the GOP minority when I first observed the GA in the mid 1980s.

    They come out of this special session with 20 bills passed on straight party votes, they own it all. Eventually they might regret not seeking some compromise and consensus.

    • Makes perfect sense. He can be both of the men Dick has described. If on the Assembly floor whiskey can be so bifurcated, certainly it is easy for a man.

      “My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
      If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
      But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

      This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”– Judge N. S. “Soggy” Sweats

  2. “Before adjourning, Herring announced that the executive committee (presumably herself and Sen. John Edwards, the vice-chair) would meet with staff to identify the studies the Commission would undertake for the year.”

    That should be an interesting list.

    • I just got the list of topics. It is quite ambitious.
      For the 2020 special session (in less than 30 days):
      Earned sentence credits (“good time”)
      Expungement (Phase 1-automatic)

      For the 2021 Regular session (less than 6 months away)
      Expungement (Phase 2–petition based)
      Mandatory minimum sentences
      Virginia Pre-trial Data Project
      Jury sentencing

      If you go to the Crime Commission website and peruse some of their annual reports, you will find in-depth research and extensive documentation. I fear that this thoroughness and depth is going to suffer.

      • Thank you. I will visit the site and take a look.

        I, too, have concerns about the thoroughness and depth of the research which will be undertaken by this Crime Commission.

  3. I don’t disagree with Steve…………

  4. Good informative posts, all of you.

  5. There was a time when I followed the Courts committees, especially the House, quite closely. When I did, I found the debates fascinating, and discovered (surprise, surprise) that good lawyers work hard to see all sides of a question. Prosecutors don’t want to convict somebody innocent, and few defense lawyers believe all the clients to be innocent victims. Bell and Gilbert follow in a long bipartisan line of faithful guardians of our court system (a relic of flawed European culture, the Smithsonian claims…but I digress.) I say again, taking them off this panel was a mistake if Filler-Corn seeks to build consensus. I conclude she actually fears it.

    • Was that during the days of Cranwell, Chip Woodrum, George Allen, Philpott et al.?

    • I believe you are correct. Either the Republicans will succeed in marginalizing the extremists, and reclaim some of the independents, or the party will split by 2024 along Trump lines. Ya know, those who really believe he’s a “stable genius” and those with IQs over 85.

      Just a gut feeling, but if it does happen, I can see a centrist party forming. A real centrist party. May take a decade, or two.

      How about Whigs and Copperheads?

      Hey, it’s been 6 months since the barber. And, if Republicans were as smart as that little guy, you’d be defeating Hillary in November..

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