Correction: An earlier version of this story said Judge Arenda Wright Allen attended Jacksonville State University. She attended Jacksonville University. This version has been corrected.
The federal judge who struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage Thursday is an appointee of President Obama and in 2011 became the first black woman appointed as a federal District Court judge in Virginia.
Arenda Wright Allen, born in 1960, is a Philadelphia native who spent decades as a government lawyer: first for the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, then as a federal prosecutor, and finally as a public defender. She is married to a retired pro soccer player from Jamaica and has two children — one of them named for musician Yanni.
When Wright Allen testified about her career before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she brought her pastor with her, from the 300-year-old First Presbyterian Church in Norfolk. Next to her husband, Wright Allen said, the Rev. Jim Wood was “probably the closest man in my life.”
“I first have to thank God, because it’s clear to me that if it weren’t for him I would not be here,” Wright Allen said then.
Much of Wright Allen’s legal career, as both a lawyer and a judge, has been spent working on the gritty details of criminal cases. She prosecuted weapons smugglers. She defended accused murderers. She sentenced child pornographers.
In the latest case, however, she faced a more abstract and historic question than one person’s guilt or innocence. Does the Constitution’s guarantee of “equal protection” mean that same-sex couples should not be denied the ability to wed?
Wright Allen said it did, in a sweeping opinion that referenced a landmark Supreme Court opinion that struck down statutes banning interracial marriage.
Wright Allen wrote that same-sex “relationships are created through the exercise of sacred, personal choices — choices, like the choices made by every other citizen, that must be free from unwarranted government interference.”
That opinion has thrown a sudden spotlight on a judge who spent 25 years of her career working in the military and federal legal systems.
Wright Allen graduated from Kutztown State College (now Kutztown University), near Allentown, Pa., in 1982. She attended law school at North Carolina Central University, a historically black university in Durham, N.C. After graduating with a law degree in 1985, Wright Allen served in the Navy’s legal corps until 1990. She remained in the Navy Reserve and retired from the reserves in 2005 with the rank of commander.
Wright Allen then spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor in Virginia, based mainly in Norfolk. She then became a federal public defender in 2005, also based in Norfolk. In five years, Wright Allen told the Senate Judiciary Committee, she represented about 500 clients facing felony charges.
In that Senate hearing, Wright Allen said she’d met her husband, Delroy Anthony Allen, when she was 17 and both were students at Jacksonville University. (She later transferred to Kutztown.) “We were pen pals for 12 years before we dated for two months, and then married for seven years before we had our two children. So he is a friend, then a brother, then my boyfriend, my husband, and now the perfect father of my two children,” she testified.
Wright Allen said then that her husband had left his job about 12 years before, when their younger son, Niall, was diagnosed with autism. Their older son, Wright Allen said, is an accomplished drummer with a famous name.
“We named him after a musician, Yanni, who’s a Greek musician that my husband and I followed, because of his diverse band and his diverse orchestra, for about 30 years,” she said.
Wright Allen was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 96 to 0 in early 2011. Since then, she has handled the same kind of low-profile cases that she’d handled as a lawyer. As a judge, Wright Allen has a conversational style — often talking to defendants without the solemn distance that many judges favor.
Last year, for instance, Wright Allen spoke to a defendant in a bank-fraud case, urging him to spend some of his community-service hours speaking to students at his old high school. He should warn them, she said, about making choices that lead toward prison.
“Beg them not to put themselves in a cage,” she said then, according to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
In another case, Wright Allen seemed to show little empathy for a man convicted in a child-pornography case. The man, who had been accused of luring underage girls into making lurid videos, told the judge that he didn’t need jail. “All I need is the Lord, some good Christian fellowship and my family,” he said.
Wright Allen gave him 30 years.
“You mentioned wanting Christian fellowship. You can have that while you’re in BOP [the Federal Bureau of Prisons],” Wright Allen said, according to the Daily Press newspaper.
The same-sex marriage case gave Wright Allen a rare opportunity to remake the law, rather than take it as a given, whether she agreed with it or not.
One exchange with a defendant stands out now — in retrospect — after Wright Allen’s same-sex ruling. It came during a 2011 case, in which a man claiming to have a “Moorish ID” had told police that he had immunity to U.S. laws.
“We all have to agree with the law in America, whether we like it or not,” the judge said, according to the Virginian-Pilot. “Your beliefs, if they clash with American laws, are going to get you in trouble.”
The newspaper said that Wright Allen told him that there were U.S. laws that even she didn’t agree with.
“There’s a lot of stuff I don’t agree with in America,” the judge continued. “But I keep my mouth shut.”