RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Lawyers who double as legislators have a right to postpone their cases over and over again. A little-known special privilege allows for it.
However, some argue it is being abused and it delays justice.
For instance, New Kent woman’s child support and property settlement case has been going on for four years. Vicki Ford blames the long, drawn out, legal battle on that special privilege the defense attorney/state senator has frequently invoked.
“Hearing after hearing has been continued,” Ford said.
Court records show her court case with her ex-husband has been delayed at least ten times since the case was first filed back in 2017.
“His excuse for his continuance is legislative duties,” Ford said.
Court records and emails shared with 8News, show for most of the delays, defense attorney Senator Tommy Norment invoked section 30-5 of the Virginia code.
“I have come to the point where there’s a hearing set, I am going to have at least one section 30-5 request,” Ford explained. “Usually, a continuance is not the next day. It’s several months down the road.”
The delays in the case have been taking a toll both emotionally and financially says Vicki Ford’s husband Kyle.
“We’ve gone through two attorneys,” Kyle said. “We can’t afford attorneys anymore.”
Vicki Ford is now representing herself.
“I have incurred thousands of dollars in legal fees,” she said.
30-5 is a state code that allows lawyers who are legislators to postpone any court appointments with a continuance 30 days before or after the general assembly session. it also extends the privilege to one day on either side for commission, council or committee” meetings. Yet, Ford believes Norment is abusing the code.
“It’s happened at all times of the year,” she said.
Some of the requests for continuance are made over email, lawyer to lawyer, instead of in front of a judge. In addition, some of the requests appear to go beyond GA sessions and committees.
“In one case he said Governor Northam needed to meet with him,” Kyle said.
In an email to Vicki Ford’s former attorney Norment writes, “The Governor called me from CA where he has been meeting with some economic development prospects. He has ‘asked’ that I keep the entire day of Oct. 30 open.”
“The court has been 100% in granting that every time,” Kyle said.
The Republican lawmaker does appear quick to remind lawyers he has a legal privilege they don’t. In another email to Vicki’s former attorney about scheduling a hearing, Norment writes “Don’t set it unilaterally or I will introduce you to 30-5!”
“He uses this as a full-time privilege,” Kyle said.
Norment’s not the first state lawmaker to be accused of abusing the statute. Republican Delegate Jeff Campbell and the late Delegate William Robinson, a Democrat, have come under fire for their frequent use of state code 30-5. Yet, Virginia court records cannot be comprehensively searched for every time a lawyer invokes 30-5. It’s not tracked.
Richmond attorney Bill Shields says delaying a case can be a strategy.
“Witnesses get old, they die off, they move away,” he said.
Norment refused our repeated requests for an interview but in a statement said:
“I have never abused 30-5, only invoking it when no other alternative is available. Most opposing attorneys and courts understand that it is a necessary option for any attorney in the General Assembly who is a trial attorney like myself who is in court four or five days a week.”
“The thing is rife with the conflict of interest,” Shields said.
He’s had to try cases against other lawyer-legislators and says the provision has problems.
“For the legislature to pass it in the first place, is clearly the legislature giving a benefit to legislature lawyers, that no one else in the Commonwealth has,” Shields said.
He also told us all those 30-5 requests can really slow down a case but most lawyers know it’s not worth the time challenging it before a judge. He said, “You also have a situation where the judges are going to be reappointed by the General Assembly and so they don’t want to ruffle to many feathers.”
“This is important and necessary,” said Steve Benjamin. The local attorney serves as an outside counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and is past President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He says 30-5 is essential.
“They are required to attend meetings and hearings long into the night,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin said lawyers aren’t in charge of their own schedules. The code gives legislators the ability to focus on the issues before them.
“Lawyers have a special duty to their clients and courts. But also a duty to the people who elected him,” he said.
Still, some say the code should be amended. A former lawmaker/lawyer who wishes not to be identified said “The statute was well intended for practicing attorneys during the regular session. The problem recently has been the abundance and lengths of SPECIAL sessions.”
Norment admitted special session are an issue. In a statement, he wrote:
As Senate Republican Leader, and the Republican Senator with the most seniority, my legislative responsibilities are substantial. Last year alone, the General Assembly marked 150 session days. Add to that multiple days of meetings for Standing Committees, Boards, and Commissions, and you begin to get an idea of just how great the time obligations have been under Democrat control/
It should remain in place for all regular sessions so that the progress of business is not interrupted. As to special sessions, it is a more problematic issue. Special sessions are different in that there is not a comprehensive schedule published up front like a regular session. Schedules in a special session are not predictable. Legislators do not know from day-to-day or week-to-week what the schedule is going to be.
Still, those who feel caught in the middle like the Ford’s, it’s frustrating. Vicki said, As a citizen, I feel like the justice system is failing.
Ford says she filed a complaint. In a letter from The Bar she was told, ”You and your attorney had the opportunity to object to the continuances requested by Mr. Norment. The Virginia State Bar will not review continuances granted by the court. You should discuss with your own attorney the best way to proceed in this matter.”
8News reached out to the Virginia State Bar to see if a lawyer had ever been disciplined for abusing 30-5. However, we were told they didn’t know off-hand and told us freedom of information act request to manually review disciplinary cases, would cost more than $10,000. At least 18 other states have a similar rule.