By Dick Hall-Sizemore
The 2020 General Assembly (remember that? — it seems so long ago! — was historic in many ways. There was an avalanche of legislation and committees and subcommittees met from the break of dawn into the evenings (so much for those traditional receptions hosted by various interest groups). Subjects such as the minimum wage, energy legislation, gas taxes, redistricting, and the budget grabbed most of the headlines. A lot of other legislation was considered that did not get a lot of public attention.
Before the memory of the session complete fades, I want to highlight five examples of good legislation that was enacted “under the radar” of big headlines. Undoubtedly, there were many other worthy bills, but these caught my attention, partly because some of them dealt with subjects previously discussed on this blog. Here they are:
Balance billing—SB 172 (Favola, Fairfax). This legislation says that patients cannot be stuck with big bills when they go to the emergency room or need surgery and the hospital or a doctor participating in the surgery does not belong to the network of the patient’s insurer. It sets up a process for protecting all involved—the patient, insurer, and provider. According to the Daily Press, this bill was the result of two years of negotiations among health care providers, insurers, the Virginia Poverty Law Center, and the State Corporation Commission. It is an example of the legislative process at its best. At the latest report, Congress was still trying to figure out how to tackle this issue.
Guardianship—SB 1072 (Mason, Williamsburg). This bill prohibits a court from appointing as guardian or conservator for a person an attorney who has been hired by the party asking for the appointment. The prohibition also applies to any attorney within the law firm of the attorney representing the party asking for the appointment. The legislation resulted from a series of articles in the Richmond Times-Dispatch revealing that, when the VCU Health System went to court asking that a guardian be appointed for one of its patients, the court almost always appointed VCU’s lawyer as the patient’s guardian. (See discussion of this issue in Bacon’s Rebellion here.)
Petition of actual innocence—HB 974 (Herring, Alexandria) and SB 511 (Edwards, Roanoke)—Virginia has one of the shortest windows (21 days) in the nation in which a convicted person can ask for a retrial based on newly discovered evidence. The Commonwealth does have a procedure wherein a convicted person can petition the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals for a writ of actual innocence. procedure is available for newly discovered evidence if the petitioner entered a plea of not guilty at trial; however, any type of plea is allowed for any petitioner who was sentenced to death or an offense subject to a life sentence. A petition based on newly discovered nonbiological evidence can be submitted only once. The enacted bill would (i) eliminate the requirement for a plea of not guilty at trial (ii) eliminate the limitation on the number of petitions based on nonbiological evidence, and (iii) lower the standard to be used by the appeals courts from “clear and convincing evidence” to “a preponderance of the evidence.” The legislation should make it easier for wrongfully convicted persons to obtain a writ of actual innocence. Critics of the current law assert that the standards are unreasonably strict.
Menhaden—HB 1448 (Plum, Fairfax) and SB 791 (Lewis, Accomack)—Currently, the General Assembly, through the Code of Virginia, regulates the fishing of menhaden. This is the only fish species for which the General Assembly has reserved to itself the regulation of catches. This bill would transfer the authority to regulate the fishing of menhaden to the Virginia Marine Resources Committee. See discussion of this issue in Bacon’s Rebellion here, here, and here.)
Cell phones—HB 874 (Bourne, Richmond) and SB 160 (Surovell, Fairfax)—Effective January 1, 2021, this bill will make it illegal for anyone, except emergency personnel, driving a moving motor vehicle to use a cell phone.
(All the patrons of the listed bills were Democrats. In some cases, Republicans sponsored identical of largely similar legislation. In such situations, the bills sponsored by Republicans are shown in the Legislative Information System as “incorporated” in the bill sponsored by the Democrat. It is a longstanding practice of the General Assembly, in the case of duplicate bills, to incorporate the bills into one bill, with preference going to the member of the majority party.)