After Thesis Uproar, McDonnell's Strongly Worded Comments on Gays Resurface

McDonnell headed proceedings in 2003 on the reappointment of Verbena M. Askew, a Circuit Court judge accused of harassment.
McDonnell headed proceedings in 2003 on the reappointment of Verbena M. Askew, a Circuit Court judge accused of harassment. (Marvin Joseph/twp - The Washington Post)
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By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

In January 2003, then-Del. Robert F. McDonnell helped gavel in one of the most extraordinary judicial reappointment hearings in Virginia history: a seven-hour, trial-like affair that led to questions about whether the future Republican gubernatorial candidate thought gays were fit to serve on the bench.

As chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, McDonnell sat at the head of the proceedings, with his Senate counterpart next to him and committee members on both sides. Facing them was Verbena M. Askew of Newport News, the state's first black female Circuit Court judge, whose reappointment was in jeopardy because of allegations that she had sexually harassed a female colleague.

Amid accusations of racism and homophobia, state lawmakers grilled Askew and several witnesses for hours, focusing in large part on her failure to disclose the harassment case. Some members also raised questions about her actions from the bench. A majority, including McDonnell, voted against her reappointment.

In comments before the hearing, McDonnell indicated that Askew's sexual conduct was relevant, telling one newspaper that "certain homosexual conduct" could disqualify a person from being a judge because it violates the state's crimes against nature law. The words were widely published at the time, and his remarks contributed to a lasting view that sexual orientation was at least one reason for Askew's ouster.

McDonnell said in an interview last week that the episode has nothing to do with his campaign for governor.

"It is 100 percent irrelevant in this race," he said. "What's relevant in this race is what the records of the candidates are on issues that the voters care about and, number two, who's got the best ideas to be able to create jobs and build infrastructure and build a better Virginia. That's what's relevant."

McDonnell's role in the hearing has attracted renewed scrutiny after the publication last week of a 1989 graduate school thesis in which the 14-year lawmaker and former attorney general had criticized working mothers and homosexuals and urged the promotion of traditional values through government. In one passage, McDonnell wrote: "Man's basic nature is inclined towards evil, and when the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality, the government must restrain, punish, and deter."

McDonnell has dismissed his thesis as a "20-year-old document" and an "academic exercise" with no bearing on a political campaign that ought to be focused on jobs, road improvements and public schools. He said some of his views have changed since he wrote the thesis while earning public policy and law degrees at what is now Regent University in Virginia Beach. And he emphasized that he has never viewed sexual orientation as a relevant factor in hiring decisions or fitness for public office.

McDonnell said he joined the majority in voting Askew off the bench for several reasons: The City of Hampton, where she had established a drug court and where her accuser worked, had settled the harassment claim for $64,000. A Virginia Employment Commission hearing officer found that the accuser, Brenda Collins, was forced to resign her job in part because of retaliation. And in surveys, local lawyers had expressed dissatisfaction with Askew's courtroom performance.

McDonnell was credited by Republicans and Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly at the time for making sure witnesses supporting Askew were present at the hearing.

He also became known for telling the Daily Press of Newport News that certain homosexual activities could disqualify a person from the bench. "It certainly raises some questions about the qualifications to serve as a judge," he said.

"There is certain homosexual conduct that is in violation of the law," McDonnell added. "I'm not telling you I would disqualify a judge per se if he said he was gay. I'm talking about their actions."

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