January 24, 2014 | by Michael K. Lavers
Virginia lawmakers seek ability to defend state laws

Mark Herring, gay news, Washington Blade

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on Thursday announced he will not defend the state’s constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage.(Photo courtesy of Herring for Attorney General)

A Virginia House of Delegates committee on Friday approved a bill that would allow any state lawmaker to defend a law if the governor and attorney general decline to do so.

The 13-7 vote in the House Courts of Justice Committee on the measure that state Dels. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah County) and Bob Marshall (R-Prince William County) introduced on Jan. 7 took place a day after Attorney General Mark Herring announced he would not defend the state’s constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage.

State Dels. Dave Albo (R-Fairfax County), Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville), Ben Cline (R-Rockbridge County), Jackson Miller (R-Manassas), G. Manoli Loupassi (R-Richmond), Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach), Greg Habeeb (R-Salem), Randy Minchew (R-Loudoun County), Rick Morris (R-Isle of Wight County), James Leftwich (R-Chesapeake), A. Benton Chafin (R-Russell County), Les Adams (R-Pittsylvania County) and Gilbert voted for House Bill 706. State Dels. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax County), David Toscano (D-Charlottesville), Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), Patrick Hope (D-Arlington County), Mark Keam (D-Fairfax County) and Monty Mason (D-Williamsburg) opposed the measure.

State Dels. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott County) and Jeff Campbell (R-Smyth County) did not vote on HB 706 that contains a so-called emergency clause that would allow it to immediately become law if the governor were to sign it.

“A member of the General Assembly has standing to represent the interests of the commonwealth in a proceeding in which the constitutionality, legality or application of a law established under legislative authority is at issue and the governor and attorney general choose not to defend the law,” reads the measure.

Keam told the Washington Blade the committee vote took place without advance notice.

“Everybody knows that this wouldn’t even be an issue if Herring didn’t do what he did yesterday,” said the Fairfax County Democrat.

Keam further noted the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government has “been the same principle” in Virginia for 400 years.

“Why all of a sudden is there such an urgency that [they feel] like he has to change the rule now,” asked Keam. “The fact that they’re ramroding it through with emergency clause the day after the Mark Herring situation happens tells you that they’re driven by ideology.”

Virginia Republicans and social conservatives have blasted Herring for his decision not to defend the marriage amendment that voters in 2006 approved by a 57-43 percent margin. They also criticized him for joining a federal lawsuit against it that two same-sex couples from Norfolk and Richmond filed last year.

“Why didn’t he tell everybody when he was running for office what he was doing,” Marshall told Roll Call Editor-in-Chief Christina Bellantoni during an interview that aired on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU on Friday. “He kept this very cleverly to himself and sprung this like a Pearl Harbor attack on the people of Virginia after he takes an oath to defend the constitution.”

Pat Mullins, chair of the Republican Party of Virginia, on Thursday said Herring should resign so state lawmakers can appoint a successor who will defend the amendment. National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown on Friday reiterated his call for legislators to impeach the attorney general.

“He is duty-bound to defend Virginia’s law,” said Brown in an e-mail to supporters. “Yet here he is, abandoning the people and law of Virginia to pursue his own selfish motives.”

The full House is expected to vote on HB 706 on Jan. 29.

The Virginia Senate, which will likely return to Democratic control following former Loudoun County prosecutor Jennifer Wexton’s victory in the special election to fill the seat that Herring had previously held, will likely kill the measure.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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