Va. legislature expected to approve Thorne-Begland, who is gay, for bench

January 14, 2013

Virginia’s General Assembly appears poised to put an openly gay judge on the bench Tuesday, reversing itself on one of the most contentious issues of last year’s session.

A joint House and Senate panel voted unanimously Monday to advance the nomination of Tracy Thorne-Begland for floor votes in both chambers.

Eight months ago, the House rejected Thorne-Begland for a General District Court judgeship in Richmond. Conservatives contended that the city prosecutor was unfit for the bench because years earlier, as a Navy pilot, he had challenge the military’s now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays and lesbians in the armed forces.

About a month later, Thorne-Begland won an interim appointment from Richmond Circuit Court judges, who have the authority to fill vacancies on a temporary basis. Without approval from the General Assembly, his appointment will expire next month.

The move by the judges infuriated some conservatives and inspired legislation for the current session that would prohibit the judiciary from appointing someone who had been rejected by the General Assembly. Some political observers predicted that the temporary appointment would harden resistance to Thorne-Begland.

Tracy Thorne-Begland was rejected for the Richmond bench last year but appears to have the votes now. (ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/AP Photo, Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Instead, Republicans have largely dropped their opposition.

At a joint meeting of House and Senate judicial panels Monday, several House members who had opposed him last year said they would vote for him now.

“I look forward to voting for you,” said Del. Richard L. Morris (R-Isle of Wight), a Navy veteran and military lawyer who abstained in May.

Most opponents said last year that 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” years ago 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.

Republican leaders, who are hoping to de-emphasize some of the social issues that dominated the previous session, said they were changing course in this case because they had received more information. Morris said he initially believed that Thorne-Begland had violated Navy regulations by coming out on national television but later concluded that he had not because he was not in uniform on TV.

Not everyone has had a change of heart.

Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who last year compared gays to polygamists, said he will continue to oppose Thorne-Begland because he believes he would use the post for “advancing the homosexual agenda.”

The Family Foundation of Virginia, which campaigned actively against Thorne-Begland last year, did not respond to a request for comment.

“Because of that lack of information and misinformation that came into this situation, I was mislabeled,” Thorne-Begland told the assembly panel Monday. “Quite frankly, a number of you were mislabeled.”

While he would like to see gay marriage legalized in Virginia, he said he would administer justice according to the law. And he said there is little opportunity for issues of gay rights to come before him in General District Court, which has been described as the court depicted in the old sitcom “Night Court” because it primarily handles misdemeanors.

Thirty-three delegates voted to approve Thorne-Belgand last year, with 31 opposed and the rest abstaining. He needed 51 for House approval. The Senate did not vote because his nomination had already been killed in the House.

“I share with you a high degree of comfort you will be certified and elected on the Senate side,” Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) told Thorne-Begland on Monday.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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