One of several military veterans in Virginia’s House of Delegates has dropped his opposition to the appointment of a gay man as a judge, saying that he no longer believes Tracy Thorne-Begland violated Navy regulations when he came out on national television 20 years ago.
In a letter sent to the Republican caucus late last month, Del. Richard Morris (R-Isle of Wight) said he had researched the matter after voting against Thorne-Begland’s appointment in May and concluded that no violation had occurred because the Navy pilot was not in uniform when he challenged the military’s now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on ABC’s “Nightline.”
“My initial opposition to Mr. Thorne-Begland had nothing to do with his sexual orientation but was based on the belief that Mr. Thorne-Begland went on national television in his Navy uniform and spoke against standing Navy policy which would be a violation of Navy regulations and a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) because of the prohibition of being in uniform,” Morris wrote in the letter, which was first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“However, after a little more research I found that Mr. Thorne-Begland did not appear on television in his uniform but was in civilian clothes when he spoke against the administrative policy prohibiting homosexual from serving in the military. (This in itself is not a violation of Navy regulations and there is no regulation that prohibits one from speaking against an administrative policy.)”
Morris noted that Thorne-Begland later testified in uniform before a congressional hearing. But Morris said that was proper because Thorne-Begland, along with 17 other service members who also testified in uniform, had been called to appear in their positions as members of the armed services.
Morris spent 21 of his 22 years in the Navy in military justice and currently practices military law as a civilian, his letter said.
Reached by phone Thursday, Morris declined to discuss what he described as an “internal memo,” except to confirm that he’d written it.
“It wasn’t meant for public distribution,” Morris said.
It would take far more than one change of heart for Thorne-Begland, a veteran Richmond prosecutor, to secure a city District Court judgeship from the General Assembly.
The House blocked Thorne-Begland’s appointment in May by a wide margin. He needed 51 votes in the 100-member House to win appointment and received 33. The Senate never voted on the matter.
Earlier this week, leaders of Richmond’s five largest law firms urged the city’s Circuit Court judges to appoint him to the bench. But that would be an interim appointment, lasting only until the General Assembly reconvenes.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who’d led the effort to block Thorne-Begland’s nomination, was not swayed by the letter issued Tuesday by the five lawyers.
“This is the Republican establishment that can’t take a message,” Marshall said. “This is unbelievable arrogance. We went through this process, the House of Delegates said ‘no,’ we have the authority to do that. We found him wanting in judicial temperament. If they don’t like the outcome, they should run for delegate.”
But state Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), who supported Thorne-Begland, expressed hope that Morris’s letter might change some minds.
“I applaud and thank Delegate Morris for his willingness to study an issue carefully and thoroughly, change his mind and then take a stand for those convictions,” McEachin said in a written statement. “I would encourage those other legislators who dismissed Mr. Thorne-Begland’s judicial nomination to follow Delegate Morris’ lead and to research the actual record. I am certain they will come to the same thoughtful conclusion he did.”