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Topics In the News
Tracy Thorne-Begland Appointed Judge in Virginia
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 06/14/12
Last updated on: 06/14/12
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Tracy Thorne-Begland in 2009.

On June 14, 2012, just weeks after Virginia's General Assembly rejected his nomination, Circuit Court judges have appointed Tracy Thorne-Begland to a Richmond District Court. As Laura Vozella reports in the Washington Post, the appointment is temporary, lasting only until the next General Assembly session, and is likely to reopen the debate over openly gay judges that was sparked by the rejection of Thorne-Begland's nomination a month ago.

In May, the House of Delegates overwhelmingly rejected Thorne-Begland's nomination after intense lobbying from right-wing and anti-gay groups. He needed 51 votes in the House to be confirmed, but received only 33.

The rejection was a surprise since Thorne-Begland had strong bipartisan support, and was supported unanimously by the Richmond delegation.

In the debate on the House floor, Thorne-Begland, an openly gay prosecutor who was discharged as a Naval officer twenty years ago and who spoke out against the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, was subjected to outrageous abuse by legislators, who accused him of military insubordination and who mocked his marriage.

As a 25-year-old Annapolis graduate, Thorne-Begland had an exemplary record as a Navy Lieutenant and pilot when he spoke out against the ban on gay servicemembers and, later, the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. He was the first officer to voluntarily out himself as a protest against the discriminatory regulations.

After spending some time working with the Human Rights Campaign, Thorne-Begland earned his law degree at the University of Richmond in 1997. He has served on the board of Equality Virginia. He and his husband are parents of twins.

The biggest yahoo in the Virginia House of Delegates, Robert G. Marshall, insultingly said Thorne-Begland's "life is a contradiction to the requirement of submission to the constitution."

The rejection of the eminently qualified prosecutor created a firestorm in the national media because it was such an blatant instance of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Mike Herring, Commonwealth Attorney for Richmond, said of Thorne-Begland at the time, "He's an outstanding lawyer and he would have been just as good a judge, and I can't imagine any reason for his rejection other than his sexual orientation."

Perhaps because of the national media attention, some Delegates who voted against the nominee began to reconsider.

For example, a Republican delegate, Richard Morris, said he had researched the matter after voting against Thorne-Begland's appointment in May. "My initial opposition to Mr. Thorne-Begland had nothing to do with his sexual orientation but was based on the belief that Mr. Thorne-Begland went on national television in his Navy uniform and spoke against standing Navy policy which would be a violation of Navy regulations and a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) because of the prohibition of being in uniform," Morris said. When he discovered that in fact Thorne-Begland did not appear in uniform, he withdrew his opposition.

Earlier this week, leaders of Richmond's five largest law firms urged the city's Circuit Court judges to appoint Thorne-Begland to the bench, though their appointment can only be an interim appointment, lasting only until the General Assembly reconvenes.

Upon news that the Circuit Court judges had indeed appointed Thorne-Begland, Delegate Marshall reacted angrily: "I think it's highly imprudent and arrogant on their part," said Marshall. "I hope Virginia understands what's going on here: They're contesting the authority of the General Assembly here. . . . This is an act of defiance on their part. When appointed officials get in fights with elected officials, they invariably lose."

In contrast, Senator A. Donald McEachin issued a statement supporting the judges' decision: "I applaud the circuit court judges for recognizing Mr. Thorne-Begland's skill, qualifications and competency and putting aside bigotry, prejudice and false excuses I have always had and continue to have the utmost confidence in Mr. Thorne-Begland's ability to serve our community and I am gratified to see that the circuit court judges share my confidence."

In the video below, Tracy Thorne-Begland speaks at a memorial for Leonard Matlovich during the National Equality March of 2009.

In the video below, Delegate Jennifer McClellan speaks in favor of Thorne-Begland's appointment to a judgeship.

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