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.