Leaders of Richmond’s five largest law firms are urging the city’s Circuit Court judges to do what the General Assembly would not: appoint an openly gay man to the bench.
The General Assembly in May blocked the appointment of Tracy Thorne-Begland, a veteran Richmond prosecutor, to a relatively low-level District Court judgeship.
“He’s a bright guy, he’s fair-minded; people that deal with the commonwealth’s attorney’s office think he’s a real leader there,” said former Virginia attorney general Richard Cullen, one of five lawyers who sent a letter to circuit judges Tuesday on Thorne-Begland’s behalf. “I think it’s fair to say we want this to be based on the merits. And based on the merits, Tracy will be an outstanding judge. Nobody disagrees with that.”
The letter was very brief: “We understand that the Court is considering appointing Tracy Thorne-Begland to the District Court for the City of Richmond. We believe he would be an outstanding jurist and support his appointment.”
Along with Cullen, who is chairman of McGuireWoods, it was signed by James V. Meath, chairman of Williams Mullen and a former president of the Virginia Bar Association; Thurston R. Moore, chairman emeritus of Hunton & Williams; John S. West, managing partner of Troutman Sanders’s Richmond office; and Thomas M. Wolf of LeClairRyan, former governor Timothy M. Kaine’s onetime law partner.
The General Assembly appoints district judges, but circuit judges can fill vacancies on the district bench when the legislature is not in session. Those appointment last only until the next General Assembly session.
Thorne-Begland declined to comment on whether he is seeking the interim appointment. But Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), one of Thorne-Begland’s supporters, confirmed that the prosecutor is in the running.
“He’s definitely a candidate and definitely interested,” McEachin said.
Opposition to Thorne-Begland’s appointment was led by the Family Foundation of Virginia and Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William). They said they objected to him not because of his sexual orientation but because of his outspokenness on the subject of gay rights. Thorne-Begland, then a naval officer, came out on ABC’s “Nightline” 20 years ago to challenge the military’s now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He has supported same-sex marriage and is raising twins with his partner.
Even if the circuit judges give Thorne-Begland the judgeship, it’s unclear that the General Assembly would keep him in the post. Thorne-Begland needed 51 votes in the 100-member House to win appointment and received 31. The Senate never voted on the matter.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said the letter could help. “Having the pillars of the legal establishment strongly urge the Richmond circuit judges to appoint [Thorne-Begland] because he is highly qualified is valuable,” he said via e-mail. Tobias added that what’s up in the air is whether the General Assembly would appoint Thorne-Begland permanently after having an opportunity to assess him during an interim term.
But Marshall, who ran in Tuesday’s primary for U.S. Senate but was defeated by George Allen, was not swayed.
“This is the Republican establishment that can’t take a message,” he 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.”