June 21, 2012

WHATEVER FIG leaves Virginia Republican lawmakers grasped for, it was old-fashioned bigotry that led them to block the nomination last month of Tracy Thorne-Begland to a judgeship on Richmond General District Court. Mr. Thorne-Begland, a highly regarded prosecutor and a former fighter pilot, is also gay, and that last fact was enough for all but a handful of the 67 GOP members in the House of Delegates to oppose his nomination or to sit on their hands.

The outcome was a disgrace for Virginia, which has no openly gay judges. But to the state’s credit, its judicial, legal and political establishments aren’t solely in the hands of homophobic legislators. Following expressions of support for Mr. Thorne-Begland from some of the most prominent elected officials and lawyers in the commonwealth, including Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and other Republicans, the Richmond Circuit Court stepped in last week and appointed him to fill a vacancy on the district court on an interim basis.

Bravo for the higher court. And hurrah for the leaders of Richmond’s five biggest law firms, who publicly endorsed Mr. Thorne-Begland’s candidacy, saying “he would be an outstanding jurist.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. The appointment ends in February, when the General Assembly will be in session. And Mr. Thorne-Begland’s opponents have already sworn to deep-six his nomination if it comes before them again. Among the most vocal is Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who branded Mr. Thorne-Begland “an aggressive activist” for the “pro-homosexual agenda” and said last year that gay men and lesbians are “intrinsically disordered.”

What was truly disordered was Mr. Marshall’s remark last month that Mr. Thorne-Begland would be biased if he were to preside from the bench over a case involving “a barroom fight between a homosexual and a heterosexual.” He expressed no similar concern about the possibility of bias by heterosexual judges in such cases.

What such legislators do not focus on is Mr. Thorne-Begland’s legal qualifications, which are unimpeachable. As the top deputy in one of Virginia’s biggest prosecutor’s offices, he has handled dozens of homicides and other major felonies and is regarded in Richmond’s legal community as a consummate professional.

The outcome of the debate over Mr. Thorne-Begland will say a lot about the commonwealth — whether it remains in thrall to bigots or is ready to face a future in which there is no place for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.