Scandal-scarred Virginia lawmaker now seeks justice reform

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In this Thursday, March 5, 2020 photo, Virginia State Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, speaks during an interview in his office at the Capitol in Richmond, Va. The former prosecutor-turned-defense attorney, who calls himself "Fighting Joe," has pushed his way back into the political fold. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. – Just a few years ago, Joe Morrissey's political career appeared to be over.

The former prosecutor-turned-defense attorney was pressured into resigning from the Virginia House of Delegates after he was accused of having sex with a 17-year-old receptionist at his law firm.

But Morrissey, who calls himself “Fighting Joe," has pushed his way back into Virginia's political fold, boosted by a new Democratic majority in the state legislature and a strong appetite for criminal justice reform among his fellow Democrats.

Morrissey won a state Senate seat in November as Democrats seized control of the legislature for the first time in two decades. Now, a party that once shunned him has welcomed his progressive reforms as Democrats remake Virginia's laws.

In the Senate, Morrissey has been one of the most prolific sponsors of criminal justice reform bills, many of them aimed at ending disparate treatment of African Americans and other minorities, groups that are among his biggest supporters.

But Morrissey stirred up controversy again at the end of the legislative session when he defended Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax against rape allegations made by two women.

During a local radio show, Morrissey said Fairfax was denied due process after the women went public with their allegations last year, at a time when there were widespread calls for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign during a blackface scandal and it appeared Fairfax could be elevated to the governor's office. Morrissey also said he did not believe the women.

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director of Care in Action, demanded a public apology from Morrissey and Fairfax, saying both men had made disparaging remarks about Fairfax's accusers.

But on the legislative front, Morrissey has won praise from his fellow Democrats and even some Republicans.

“You're changing the criminal justice system in your first year,” Del. Michael Mullin, a Democrat, told Morrissey during a recent hearing.

Several bills sponsored by Morrissey are expected to be signed into law by Northam, including one that will establish a specialized court docket to offer treatment monitoring and supervision of defendants with mental illness.

Morrissey was a leading sponsor of a bill that will expand parole eligibility to inmates who were sentenced during a five-year period when juries were not told parole had been abolished in Virginia, an omission critics say led to overly harsh punishments because jurors believed defendants would serve only a fraction of their sentences.

Morrissey, who is Catholic, also won praise when he broke from his party and voted with Republicans against a bill that would ease restrictions on abortion access. The bill will eliminate the current 24-hour waiting period before an abortion and a requirement that women undergo an ultrasound and counseling.

Republican Sen. Bill Stanley said Morrissey has managed to forge relationships with colleagues on both sides of the political aisle.

“People didn't know what of kind of Joe Morrissey they were going to get in the Senate until he arrived, and I think universally, everyone is pleasantly surprised and pleased with how he's handled himself here in the chamber,” Stanley said.

Just a few years ago, Morrissey was a political outcast after a series of professional and personal scandals.

While he was the chief prosecuting attorney in Richmond, he got into a fistfight with a defense lawyer in a courtroom hallway in 1991. He's also been disbarred twice.

In 2007, he was elected to the House of Delegates and was reelected to three more terms. He resigned his seat in December 2014 after being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, his receptionist. He won reelection as an independent in a special election a month later. For the next two months, he spent his days working at the General Assembly, but his nights in jail as he served a work-release sentence on the charge.

In March 2015, he resigned his seat in the House to run for the Virginia State Senate, but failed to qualify for the Democratic primary ballot.

Morrissey later married his receptionist and the couple now have three children together.

In 2016, he was the frontrunner in the Richmond mayor's race until a legal client accused him of making unwanted sexual advances and sending her lewd text messages.

Three years later, he defeated Democratic Sen. Rosalyn Dance in a primary election and went on to win the general election.

Morrissey, now 62, says he feels passionately that people who have made mistakes want to do better and acknowledges that part of his drive to help others may stem from his own shortcomings.

“There is certainly the possibility that they can — if given a second chance — redeem themselves. Let's let them do that," he said.