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Stolle Threatens Special Session Filibuster

Rosalind Helderman

There are some interesting politics developing around what had been assumed likely to be a routine and quickie special legislative session scheduled for next month. The session was called by Gov. Tim Kaine to make legislative fixes in response to a recent Supreme Court decision that requires live testimony, rather than written reports, in court cases that use certain scientific evidence. Without the fixes, Kaine has said some DUI and other offenders would walk on technicalities.

When Kaine announced he was calling, he said he did so with the agreement of both parties that the session would last one day and legislators would consider only bills on this one topic, likely with legislative language agreed upon in advance.

Enter retiring and respected Republican Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach).

Stolle wants the General Assembly to also pass one other bill next month, legislation to provide compensation to Arthur Whitfield, a Hampton Roads man who served 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Whitfield was released in 2004 and granted a pardon by Kaine last spring. Whitfield is in poor health and, by all accounts, in desperate need of living expenses. Under Stolle's bill, Whitfield would begin receiving $445,703 immediately as compensation for his wrongful conviction.

Whitfield's plight was chronicled by the Virginian Pilot earlier this month.

Providing monetary relief to Whitfield is the kind of thing the General Assembly would take up as a matter of course during its would happen practically as a matter of course during the legislature's annual session.

But Kaine had an agreement that lawmakers would consider only bills on the the Supreme Court fix on Aug. 19. Open the door, and every legislator with a worthy cause could expect similar consideration. Stolle said he asked the governor to consider an exception, and he said no. So Stolle went to fellow Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell, and now we're off to the races.

McDonnell this afternoon released a statement indicating he supports providing Whitfield compensation at the special session. House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) said this afternoon that he backs the idea too. And Stolle, who is retiring from the senate and would carry this bill as his last after 17 years in the General Assembly?

He says he believes so deeply that Whitfield quickly deserves state compensation that he would filibuster the adoption of any procedural resolution, needed to open the session, if its language would block consideration of his legislation. After all, he notes the issue that brings the legislature to Richmond has to do with making sure prosecutors don't face undo difficulties in convicting the guilty. But isn't the justice system's first responsibility to protect the innocent, argues Stolle?

"I've met with this guy. He's slipping through the cracks and he deserves better," Stolle said.

Whitfield is a sympathetic figure hard to oppose. Its hard to see Kaine being too upset if leaders of both parties can agree to advance Stolle's bill--as long as it does nothing to upset the rest of the one day session.

But McDonnell's entrance into the issue may muddy the waters. It could raise public pressure on Democrats to embrace Stolle's cause. But it could also muck up the works of the special session entirely by injecting partisan campaign politics. And it may anger Democrats who feel Republicans are going back on their agreement with Kaine to limit topics for the session.

"The governor feels that the concern would be if every legislator were permitted to pick their issue and make it part of the special session, that the key public safety concern would not be adequately addressed," Kaine spokeswoman Lynda Tran said late this afternoon.

UPDATE:
Late this afternoon, McDonnell opponent Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who actually sits in the General Assembly, joined McDonnell in backing Stolle's bill.

"Mr. Whitfield deserves prompt assistance, after serving 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Creigh Deeds supports immediate restitution for Mr. Whitfield through a bill in special session," said Deeds spokesman Jared Leopold.

By Rosalind Helderman  |  July 28, 2009; 5:53 PM ET
Categories:  2009 Governor's Race , Creigh Deeds , Election 2009 , General Assembly 2009 , Robert F. McDonnell , Rosalind Helderman , Timothy M. Kaine  
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