Va. lawmakers appoint gay judge after rejecting him last year

Virginia’s General Assembly voted Tuesday to appoint a gay judge to the bench, reversing its decision last year to reject his nomination.

Without debate but with a walkout by more than half of the Republican caucus, the Senate voted 28 to 0 to appoint Tracy Thorne-Begland to a six-year term on Richmond’s General District Court. The vote in the House, also without debate, was 66 to 28 in favor of his appointment.

In both chambers, all of those opposed to his appointment were Republicans.

In the Senate, 12 of the chamber’s 20 Republicans left the chamber rather than vote on the matter. Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who supported the appointment, had urged anyone opposed to leave the chamber rather than cast a no vote against the nominee.

He said that is the custom in the Senate.

The Virginia General Assembly voted Tuesday to appoint Tracy Thorne-Begland to a six-year term on Richmond’s General District Court. (ALEXA WELCH EDLUND/2005 AP photo)

Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) initially voted no. The vote was reconsidered moments later, with Norment restating that opponents should leave the chamber. That time, Black left.

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

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 would have expired next month.

Addressing a joint House and Senate judicial panel Monday, Thorne-Begland said he appreciated that legislators were giving him a second look. Since last year, he said, he has been able to clear up some “misinformation” about his record, demonstrating, for example, that he had received an honorable discharge from the military.

“I want to thank the members of the General Assembly for their thoughtful deliberation concerning my nomination,” he said Tuesday. “I also want to thank my family for their support throughout this process, and I look forward to continuing my service on behalf of this great commonwealth.”

Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) continued to oppose Thorne-Begland’s nomination, although he did not voice his objections on the House floor ahead of the vote.

“Republicans in Washington have abandoned their opposition to taxes, and Republicans in Richmond have thrown away a significant portion of their social issue base,” Marshall said. “What do Republicans stand for?”

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) was one of 37 Republicans who voted in support of Thorne-Begland on Tuesday. Albo also voted in favor of the judge last year.

“I’ve always thought he’s a great lawyer, highly respected in the area,” Albo said after the vote. “I could give a hoot whether he’s gay or not. A year ago, there was a lot of misinformation out there. . . . All the questions had been answered. That’s why there was no debate on it. . . . Everybody knew what they were going to do.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.

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