Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli answers questions from the media after speaking at Ashby Ponds Retirement Community on Tuesday in Ashburn. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Two weeks after he was sworn in as Virginia attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli II went to court one last time as a private-practice lawyer.

Fellow lawyers viewed the appearance at the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in January 2010 as unusual because attorneys general almost never handle private cases. At the time, Cuccinelli’s deputy told The Washington Post that the case involved “some sensitive issues and some child witnesses, and the client wanted some sensitivity, and he wanted Ken Cuccinelli, so he finished out that matter.”

Cuccinelli’s office didn’t say so then, but the client was Ron M. Grignol Jr., a former House of Delegates candidate embroiled in a custody dispute with his ex-wife.

Grignol is also the former leader of Fathers for Virginia, which seeks to “empower divorced fathers as equal partners in parenting,” and of a second group that contends that men are frequently victimized by false allegations of domestic abuse. Grignol did not respond to requests for comment about the groups, which some women’s rights organizations have accused of distorting the facts about domestic violence.

Cuccinelli’s legal work for Grignol, whom he also knew from Virginia political circles, is one facet of his relationship with the fathers’ rights movement, a loose national network of activists who think the legal system is stacked against men in divorce and custody cases. As a state senator, Cuccinelli introduced legislation on divorce law backed by national fathers’ rights groups, which have urged members to get out the vote for him.

More Post coverage of the race for Virginia governor.

Cuccinelli’s support for aspects of the groups’ agenda illustrates how his personal and religious views have helped shape his political career and continue to affect it as he runs for governor against businessman Terry McAuliffe (D).

His ties to the groups could spill over to the governor’s race as Democrats have seized on Cuccinelli’s stances on women’s health and abortion. In a state with a stark gender gap on such issues, the McAuliffe campaign could target Cuccinelli’s advocacy of fathers’ rights to further depress his support among women. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed McAuliffe with a 12-point lead over Cuccinelli among female voters.

Fathers’ rights groups have urged states to revise their laws to grant men more time with their children in joint custody proceedings. They have been criticized by some women’s groups for seeking to reduce child support payments.

“We support candidates who support the idea that children should have a full relationship with both of their parents, regardless of their present marital status,” said Michael McCormick, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. “I would say Ken Cuccinelli is a strong supporter of that particular premise.”

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) and Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) have both vetoed “equal parenting” bills this year that would, among other things, increase the minimum amount of time fathers get with their children in joint custody agreements. Critics of such measures say they remove too much discretion from family court judges.

McCormick said his group hopes to pass similar legislation across the country and “were Ken Cuccinelli to become the governor of Virginia, we believe he might well be receptive to signing it.”

Bills on fathers’ rights

Cuccinelli does not have a position on the fathers’ rights movement and does not think divorce and custody laws discriminate against men, campaign spokeswoman Anna Nix said.

“Study after study clearly demonstrates that children are better off with two parents and that children who do not live with both parents are next best off with regular, healthy contact with both parents,” Nix said. “Like millions of Virginians, Ken’s commitment to these values and principles are steadfast.”

The campaign might largely avoid the topic now. But Cuccinelli, a Catholic and father of seven, has been outspoken in his views on divorce.

“If you are sued for divorce in Virginia, there’s virtually nothing you can do to stop it,” Cuccinelli said in 2008 to the Family Foundation, a socially conservative Richmond-based advocacy group. “This law has everything to do with the breakdown of the family. The state says marriage is so unimportant that if you just separate for a few months, you can basically nullify the marriage. What we’re trying to do is essentially repeal no-fault divorce when there are children involved.”

As a state senator in 2005, Cuccinelli offered a bill that would have made it so parents initiating a no-fault divorce could have that action counted against them “when deciding custody and visitation.” The measure never came to a vote, but Cuccinelli won praise from Stephen Baskerville, then-president of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, for fighting against the no-fault divorce “epidemic.”

Cuccinelli also was the lone Senate vote against legislation to increase child support payments by tying them more closely to inflation. The 2006 measure passed 39-1, but stalled in the Virginia House of Delegates. Baskerville said the bill was an attempt to “railroad through higher child support, though it already is at punitive levels.”

Nix said that “clearly there were problems with the legislation” because the measure did not advance in the House and has not been revived.

The two bills covered the main bases of the fathers’ rights agenda, said Jocelyn Elise Crowley, a Rutgers University public policy professor and author of “Defiant Dads: Fathers’ Rights Activists in America.” Many group members have said they are motivated by their experiences with the family court system.

“Participants in the movement are concerned about two main issues nationally,” Crowley said. “They’re concerned about child support awards, and they’re concerned about child custody laws.”

Violence Against Women Act

A National Organization for Women advisory committee on family law wrote last year that fathers’ rights groups’ “true objectives are to discriminate against, control and punish women by gaining custody of children and to denigrate the personal and economic sacrifices made by mothers for their children.”

Nationally, fathers’ rights groups also have opposed the federal Violence Against Women Act, partly because they think it has fueled false abuse allegations. A group previously run by Grignol, Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting, claimed in a 2007 report that because of the Violence Against Women Act, “over 1 million false allegations of domestic violence are filed each year.” Women’s rights groups and other critics strongly dispute that false claims are so widespread.

This year, 47 state attorneys general sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Cuccinelli was one of three who did not sign it. His spokesman said at the time that Cuccinelli would not support a bill that was still subject to change.

The updated legislation has been law since March, and Virginia Democrats have run ads against Cuccinelli on the issue. He still has not articulated a firm position on the issue, though Nix said he and “other law enforcement in Virginia are highly motivated to do everything in their power to protect women and children within the commonwealth.”

No references to family law

Cuccinelli’s early campaign biographies mentioned that his private law practice included “domestic relations” and “child custody cases.” Since 2007, his biographies have not included that part of his career. His Web site notes he was a “business law attorney” with a “wide range of experience.” It makes no reference to family law.

But Cuccinelli has mentioned that he served from 1998 to 2000 on the board of Families Inc., a now-defunct Fairfax County nonprofit group.

Debra T. Snow, the co-founder of Families Inc., said she and her colleagues “provided supervised visits for non-custodial parents” who were charged with or accused of abusing their children. Cuccinelli was the organization’s attorney, she said, and helped train workers who supervised the visits.

Cuccinelli has cited his time with Families Inc. as he tells campaign audiences about his past work on behalf of “the most vulnerable in our society,” including volunteering at a homeless shelter and battling sexual assault when he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia.

Snow, now retired and living in Minnesota, recalled that she and Cuccinelli were “total opposites” in their political views, particularly on abortion. And yet, she said, “I thought he was so honest and so loyal.”

McCormick said it would be wrong to narrowly cast Cuccinelli’s beliefs. “He’s not a strong fathers’ rights guy; he’s not a mothers’ rights guy,” McCormick said. “He’s a family guy. He’s for the family.”