Saturday, February 8, 2014

Kathy Adams: Virginia House Courts of Justice Committee has big workload

House Courts of Justice Committee has big workload, February 8, 2014
By Kathy Adams

It was already getting dark Monday when Del. David Albo delivered a pep talk to the House Courts of Justice Committee.
It was going to be another late night, he told the 22 members as they sat in a room at the General Assembly Building. The lawmakers still had dozens of bills to go through and only about a week to do it. 

They had two options: stay late or risk working through the weekend, said Albo, a Fairfax County Republican.

“So I don’t want to hear any whining,” Albo warned.

The workload is always daunting – and often tedious – in this committee, which is responsible for vetting, amending and ultimately deciding the fate of every courts-related bill before the Assembly. But this year has been especially tough, with the speaker of the House assigning 297 bills to the panel, more than any other House committee. 

That’s roughly a fifth of the total bills introduced in the chamber this session and the most the committee has had since 2007, according to the House clerk’s office and the state’s legislative information system. The committee with the second most, General Laws, has less than half as many. 

To get through the stack before crossover Wednesday – the day by which each chamber has to vote on its own bills for them to advance to the other side – committee members have had to work late evenings, sitting through hours of testimony and debate. 

The subject area is broad and technical. 

Should minors be allowed to buy electronic cigarettes? Are there sex crimes for which a juvenile offender should have to automatically add his or her name to the sex offender registry? How should celebratory gunfire be punished? Is a preabortion ultrasound really necessary? 

Many are recurring topics, but this year the committee also had to take on two of the session’s most central issues: ethics and mental health reform. It formed subcommittees to deal with both. 

Almost all the bills draw heated debate, and making a mistake can be costly, Albo said. Most of the committee’s members are lawyers. 
“We make a mistake, we ruin someone’s life,” he often reminds the members. 

The burden can be heavy, especially with bills that can put someone to death, send them to prison, fine them or take away their children, Albo said. 

“Other bills in the General Assembly don’t have that kind of personal impact on people, so we need to be careful what we do,” he said Friday. “I like it, but it has been mentally challenging to make sure we do it right.” 

The committee met until 11:30 Wednesday night, still not as late as in the “old days” when its meetings sometimes stretched into the early morning hours or carried over to the weekend, Albo said. The committee’s record stands at 428 bills assigned in 1997, according to the House clerk’s office. 

“We’ll be here, well, late,” Albo told the House of Delegates as the committee prepared to gather Wednesday. “Or we can kill all of your bills and get out early,” he joked. 

They completed their work Friday and plan to start on the Senate’s bills after crossover. Sixty-four were already waiting for them.