Tracy Thorne-Begland was booted from the Navy 20 years ago after coming out as a gay man on national TV to challenge the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Now his gay rights activism is complicating his efforts to land another job — this time, that of state judge.
Thorne-Begland, the deputy commonwealth attorney for Richmond, has been nominated to serve as a judge for the city’s 13th General District Court.
On Friday, the Family Foundation of Virginia issued a statement opposing his appointment, arguing that his public work on behalf of gay rights makes him unsuitable for the impartial role of judge.
“The question is, will his personal political agenda take precedent over Virginia law and the Constitution?” the Family Foundation statement reads. “Is he going to uphold laws he clearly and very publicly disagrees with? What does he believe is the role of the courts in moving in a more ‘progressive’ direction?”
Thorne-Begland declined comment Saturday, saying via e-mail that it would be improper for him to do so as a judicial nominee. He referred questions to his sponsor in the House of Delegates, Del. G. Manoli Loupassi (R-Richmond).
Loupassi described Thorne-Begland, a prosecutor for 12 years, as someone who is highly regarded by judges and defense attorneys alike.
“He is absolutely well qualified,”Loupassi said, contending that Thorne-Begland’s public statements about gay rights do nothing to diminish his fitness for the bench.
Loupassi noted that two former delegates — C. L. “Clay” Athey Jr., a Republican from Warren; and Clarence E. “Bud” Phillips, a Democrat from Southside — are also among the 41 judges that the General Assembly will consider appointing when it reconvenes Monday.
“We’ve got a Democrat and a Republican who were both elected officials,” Loupassi said. “They took many strong positions. You can’t get any more political than being an elected political official. … And we’re approving them. .”
General District Court judges decide guilt and innocence in misdemeanor cases and probable cause in felony cases, which then get referred to a grand jury, Loupassi said. Constitutional questions about gay rights are unlikely to come up in that setting, and Thorne-Begland would recuse himself from a case if they did, Loupassi said.
“It’s like our ‘Night Court,’” he said, referring to the 1980s courtroom sitcom. “Did Johnny punch Mary? Did this person steal a bottle of beer from the store? … It typically deals with these types of cases. … He’s not going to be making decisions relative to some of the hot-button social issues.”
In its statement, the Family Foundation expressed concern that Thorne-Begland could move up to a higher court.
“There is additional concern that, once appointed, a progressively minded judge would be fast-tracked by a Democrat Governor or President to a higher court, like the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for example,” the statement continues.
A former board member of the gay-rights group Equality Virginia, Thorne-Begland “rose to prominence in the early 90s with an appearance on Nightline coming out as an openly gay Naval Officer,” according to the group’s web site. He has since spoken out in favor of gay marriage.
He and his partner, a Richmond lawyer, are raising twins.
The Family Foundation has taken issue with Thorne-Begland’s activism, including comments critical of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II. Cuccinelli has advised public universities to retreat from their policies against anti-gay discrimination.
“When one is a judicial nominee who has shown himself to be willing to personally violate the law (he violated DADT while in the Navy) and publicly attack a sitting Attorney General when that Attorney General enforces the law, we share the concerns of several members of the Judicial Appointment subcommittee, and would hope that the General Assembly would take a long, hard look at whether that person should be appointed to the bench,” the Family Foundation statement says.
This item has been updated.