The Circuit Court has authority to fill vacancies on the General District Court bench, but the appointments last only until the next legislative session.
The move was hailed by gay rights supporters and some conservatives, including Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who less than a decade ago questioned whether sexually active gays could serve as judges because they were breaking the state’s now-invalidated anti-sodomy statute.
“The Governor believes Mr. Thorne-Begland is well-qualified to serve on the bench,” McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said in an e-mail. “He congratulates him on the appointment.”
The move infuriated Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who with the Family Foundation of Virginia helped persuade the General Assembly to reject Thorne-Begland’s nomination.
“I think it’s highly imprudent and arrogant on their part,” Marshall said. “I hope Virginia understands what’s going on here: They’re contesting the authority of the General Assembly. . . . This is an act of defiance on their part. When appointed officials get in fights with elected officials, they invariably lose.”
Richard D. Taylor, chief judge of the Circuit Court, issued a one-page order appointing Thorne-Begland to the General District Court of Richmond, beginning July 1 and ending 30 days after the start of the next General Assembly session.
“I am humbled by the Circuit Court’s decision,” Thorne-Begland said in a statement. “I look forward to serving the citizens of the City of Richmond as a jurist, and over the coming months, I hope that my service provides comfort to all Virginians that I remain committed to the faithful application of the laws and Constitutions of Virginia and the United States of America.”
The appointment came just two days after leaders of Richmond’s five largest law firms wrote a letter to the Circuit Court urging it to appoint the veteran Richmond prosecutor to the bench.
It came the same day that the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a letter that a Republican delegate sent to his caucus, saying that he had dropped his opposition to Thorne-Begland. Del. Richard L. Morris (R-Isle of Wight), a Navy veteran and military lawyer, said he no longer thinks that Thorne-Begland violated Navy regulations when he came out as a gay Navy pilot on national television 20 years ago.
In May, the General Assembly blocked Thorne-Begland’s appointment in General District Court, a low-level bench that his House sponsor compared to the institution depicted in old sitcom “Night Court” because it primarily handles misdemeanors.
Opponents said they objected to Thorne-Begland not because of his sexual orientation but because of his outspokenness on the subject of gay rights. Thorne-Begland came out on ABC’s “Nightline” to challenge the now-defunct policy against gays serving openly in the military. He has supported same-sex marriage and is raising twins with his partner.