Senior Democrats express outrage at vote to reject Tracy Thorne-Begland for vacancy on Richmond circuit court
Democrats in Virginia are weighing up their options in the wake of a vote to block the appointment of the state’s first openly gay judge.
Senior Democrats expressed their dismay and outrage at the vote in the House of Delegates to reject a prominent local prosecutor, Tracy Thorne-Begland, for a vacancy on the Richmond circuit court. The decision instantly engulfed Virginia in the toxic fumes of the gay marriage debate sweeping the US, following public pronouncement of support for it last week.
The vote followed a heated debate in which Republican delegates accused Thorne-Begland of having violated military rules by coming out as gay while serving in the navy 20 years ago.
Delegates voted 33 to 31 in favour of his appointment to the bench, but that fell short of the majority of 51 votes needed for ratification. Ten delegates abstained, and 26 stayed at home.
Jennifer McClellan, the Democratic delegate for the area of Richmond in which Thorne-Begland lives, said that his rejection was not the end of the struggle. “One day the LBGT community will be represented on the bench in Virginia, and that’s a fight worth having,” she said.
There is no immediate way that Tuesday’s vote can be reconsidered by the House of Delegates, which has now adjourned for the rest of the year. It would be possible to renominate Thorne-Begland for the post next January, when the assembly reconvenes, but that would be dependent on his own wishes, which he has not yet articulated. His only statement on the matter is that he is “looking forward to continuing to serve the citizens of the city of Richmond and the great commonwealth of Virginia”.
The block on the appointment of Thorne-Begland, 45, has thrown Virginia into the centre of the debate about the legal status of gay and lesbian Americans. Last week Barack Obama said that he supported same-sex marriage, making his unexpected intervention a day after North Carolina became the 31st state to place a constitutional ban on gay marriage.
McClellan said that Thorne-Begland had been the best candidate for the judgeship, a fact that was lost amid the House of Delegates debate, which she said had been marred by misinformation. Robert Marshall, who led the Republican opposition to the appointment, accused Thorne-Begland of having broken military rules when he appeared as a serving naval officer on the ABC TV show Nightline and came out as gay.
There was an outpouring of criticism of Virginia’s assembly following the vote. Thorne-Begland’s boss, Michael Herring, the attorney of Richmond commonwealth, made an impassioned speech in which he denounced the rejection as an embarrassment.
“I’ve known Tracy for years, he’s a good man, a good father, a good lawyer and he was a good navy pilot. He would have been an outstanding judge and for the life of me I can’t understand why folks voted against his nomination.”
The LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal said the Virginia action was part of a broader strategy across the nation to undermine fairness and impartiality within the judiciary. Eric Lesh, of the group’s fair courts project, said that up to now the focus had been on specific court rulings, such as the judgment of US district judge Vaughn Walker blocking California’s gay marriage ban, Proposition 8.
Walker became the target of sustained attacks from socially conservative groups after it was revealed that he was in a long-term gay relationship, though the appeals court later ruled that his personal circumstances had no bearing on his judicial involvement in the case. “There have been several cases of bullying of judges over rulings with which various interest groups did not agree,” Lesh said.
Much attention in the Virginia dispute is being paid to a socially conservative group called the Family Foundation that actively campaigned against Thorne-Begland ahead of the vote. The gay rights group Equality Virginia accused Family Foundation of peddling “fearmongering and shrill personal attacks”.
The Family Foundation hit back with a statement that charged liberals with resorting to “mean-spirited name-calling, misinformation and bullying. After losing election after election, you would think Virginia’s left would finally figure out that they are on the wrong side of these issues.”