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Notes from the VBA summer meeting

HOT SPRINGS—Members of the Virginia Bar Association made their way to the mountains this past weekend for the group’s summer meeting, the highlight of which was the Virginia senatorial debate between two ex-governors, Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine.

Temperatures in the mornings were in the 60s, a huge relief from the oven routine earlier this month. Some quick hits and observations, with the non-debate thoughts first:

Neck Propellers. I generally don’t write fashion articles, but my piece last month called “The Bow Tie Guys” was a big hit with the VBA crowd. For that story, I didn’t get a chance to interview two longtime bow tie guys, Hampton Circuit Judge Louis Lerner and Roanoke lawyer James Jennings, but both were in attendance and sporting their favorite neckwear.

Good Guy: John Epps. Richmond lawyer John Epps, a VBA past president, was given the Roger Groot Pro Bono Award for his work on the chief justice’s pro bono summit and the development of Capital One’s Justice Server, the online case-management system that helps the private bar handle pro bono cases. Professor Groot would be proud. Well done and well-earned.

Wrongful Convictions. Thomas Haynesworth spent 27 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and he was at the meeting, serving on a panel on wrongful conviction. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who was instrumental in getting him freed, was on the same panel, and he asked the VBA’s Special Issues committee for help in getting the statute on writs of actual innocence simplified. The statute is a mess, full of internal problems and in need of a reboot – Not to make it easier to get a writ, just to make it a process that courts and counsel both can understand. You’ll hear more on this in the future.

Fourteen’s the Charm. Fairfax Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush has been giving her annual review of civil cases from the Supreme Court of Virginia for 14, count ’em, 14 years. The high court had been on a streak where the number of civil and criminal cases was more or less even, but this past year there was a huge tilt toward civil cases, by about four to one.

Home Sweet Homestead. Two lawyers from Virginia Beach have been bringing their children to The Homestead for meetings for a couple of years. The mom of the couple said that their son out of the blue asked, a bit wistfully, “Can we move to The Homestead?” Great idea, except for the paying for it. You could tell that kid to grab a green jacket and a luggage cart, but I don’t think that’s what he had in mind.

Kid-Friendly. Speaking of the wee ones, The Homestead is in the process of a makeover to make the resort more family-oriented and family-friendly. A grand Italian-like garden has been razed and they’re putting in a swimming pool. The 1766 Grille is getting a new look and new menu this winter (Homestead burgers? Dogs? French fries, anyone?) And someone said the resort is going to relax the requirement that men wear ties at dinner.

Now, the part about the Allen-Kaine debate:

Low Expectations? Post-debate comment was fairly unanimous. Kaine won on style, and even substance. But Allen was much better than expected. I saw these two knock heads last December, at a debate that was part of “AP Day at the Capitol.” My thought at the time was that Allen had spent his time in wilderness well, because he was indeed much more polished than I’d seen in prior debates or talks. He was better in December than he was this July.

Smashmouth? Kaine tweaked Allen for practicing “smashmouth” politics, dredging up Allen’s infamous promise to knock the Democrats’ “soft teeth down their whiny throats.” He also called up Allen barbs aimed at bureaucrats, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Kaine’s point: Our politics needs to be better and at a higher plane. A worthy thought, but one wonders if you get there by recycling old insults and then saying you yourself are above that. Also, one wonders what Kaine would say about the Obama campaign’s smashmouth tactics, including the recent insinuation that Mitt Romney is somehow a felon.

A Strong Line of Attack. Back in December, I heard Kaine start a mantra that he has refined: Allen talks like a fiscal conservative but doesn’t govern like one. He lists numbers from Allen’s term as governor back in the 1990s and his Senate votes. Even some of the Republicans in the house thought Allen didn’t refute it very well.

Engage Before Speaking. Kaine tested a poke at Allen over the latter’s promise to introduce a “personhood” bill at a national level, one of a host of issues on the social conservative agenda. Allen, in response, said, “I’m not running on that, I’m running on jobs.” All the social conservatives who didn’t vote for him in the GOP primary likely will take note. After all, they don’t have to show up in November.

No Macaca. In December, Kaine sought to make hay over Allen’s infamous “macaca” gaffe, the caught-on-YouTube remark that allowed Jim Webb narrowly to beat Allen in 2006. The good news is that there was no macaca in sight at The Homestead, not even on the horse trails.

A School for Moderators
. CNN’s Candy Crowley was the moderator of the debate, and if she gets the chance to moderate again, either here or elsewhere, she might familiarize herself with the rules in effect. The campaigns and VBA leaders and staffers sweat over the ground rules and the negotiations can be painstaking. Note to Crowley: The rules mean something…they can’t be ignored and laughed off.

Sign Wars. Yard signs sprout everywhere for these debates. Allen was on the ground (literally) early with bright red signs. There seemed to be more Kaine signs by the time it was over, and the Kaine people didn’t clean theirs up as quickly. The day after, you could still find the Kaine signs down Route 220 all the way to Covington.

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