Virginia’s Republican-controlled House of Delegates created an uproar among rival Democrats and LGBT activists early Tuesday morning when it voted to reject the nomination of gay Richmond prosecutor Tracy Thorne-Begland for the post of General District Court judge.
The 1 a.m. vote came in the last hour of the Virginia General Assembly’s 2012 legislative session. It followed claims by several Republican delegates that Thorne was unfit to be a judge because he has been an advocate for LGBT rights and couldn’t make impartial rulings on the bench.
The opposing lawmakers, led by Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County), also charged that Thorne-Begland “misrepresented” himself on an enlistment application by not disclosing he was gay when he joined the Navy.
Thorne-Begland, a decorated Naval officer and fighter pilot, became a nationally recognized advocate for ending the military’s ban on gay service members in 1992 when he disclosed that he is gay, leading to his honorable discharge from the service a short time later.
“The fact that he defied his oath and could not have been candid on the application – that’s highly problematic and it stays with you,” Marshall told his colleagues.
When the vote was called, 33 delegates – 25 Democrats and eight Republicans — voted for the nomination, with 31 lawmakers – all Republicans – voting against the nomination. But nine Republicans and one independent abstained from voting and 19 Republicans and seven Democrats either were absent or did not vote, preventing Thorne-Begland from obtaining the 51 votes needed to approve the nomination in the 100-member House.
Under Virginia’s procedure for appointing judges, the General Assembly members representing Richmond, the area where Thorne-Begland would have served as a judge, placed his name in nomination after determining he was qualified for the post. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell didn’t advocate for Thorne-Begland’s nomination but issued a statement on Tuesday saying judicial nominees “must be considered based solely on their merit, record, aptitude and skill.”
Thorne-Begland, 45, serves as Richmond’s Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney and has worked as a Richmond prosecutor for 12 years.
His boss, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring, called Thorne-Begland highly qualified to serve as a judge.
“It’s hard to think about what happened in the General Assembly and not conclude that it’s a form of bigotry,” Herring said at a news conference in Richmond Tuesday afternoon. He called the vote to defeat Thorne-Begland an “embarrassment” for the state.
“The debate in the House of Delegates was homophobic and embarrassing,” said Virginia State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who is gay. “It showed disrespect to a Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney and decorated veteran who was honorably discharged,” Ebbin said. “It’s also offensive that the Senate wouldn’t even grant Lt. Thorne-Begland the courtesy of a vote.”
Ebbin was referring to a unanimous vote by Senate Republicans to invoke a parliamentary procedure that blocked the Senate from voting on Thorne-Begland’s nomination. Ebbin noted that although a Senate vote in favor of the nomination could not have saved the nomination because both houses are needed to approve it, he said the Senate should have taken a vote on the issue.
“I believe the Senate would have voted in favor of the nomination,” he told the Blade.
Thorne-Begland would have become Virginia’s first openly gay judge if the General Assembly had approved his nomination.
A Washington Post editorial said Thorne-Begland’s nomination was “sabotaged by an ugly campaign of homophobic bigotry led by Virginia Republicans.”
Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, said it was especially troubled that too many lawmakers succumbed to “fear mongering and shrill personal attacks” against Thorne-Begland by the Virginia Family Foundation, which opposes LGBT rights.
“The fact that the legislature caved in to the Family Foundation’s biased blathering is another unfortunate marker on the forced march to the past on which they seem determined to lead the Commonwealth,” Equality Virginia said in a May 15 statement.