Gay Judge Confirmed by Virginia Legislature

House, Senate vote to confirm Tracy Thorne-Begland as Virginia's first out judge after scuttling nomination in 2012

The Virginia General Assembly voted today to confirm Richmond General District Court Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland, Virginia’s first out gay judge, to the bench. Thorne-Begland has been serving on the bench since June 2012 due to a temporary appointment by the court, after the Republican-led House of Delegates torpedoed his nomination in May 2012.

Thorne-Begland, a prosecutor and former Navy pilot – honorably discharged after coming out in 1992 when he was challenging the military’s ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – received 66 votes for his nomination in the 100-member House of Delegates, and 28 in the 40-member Senate, confirming him for a six-year term.

In 2012, Thorne-Begland’s nomination fell 18 House votes short of confirmation with 31 delegates voting against, 10 abstaining and 26 not voting. Following the House defeat, the nomination did not go to the Senate in 2012.

Thorne-Begland’s nomination was initially scuttled after conservative lawmakers, led by Del. Bob Marshall (R-Prince William Co.), launched a campaign against Thorne-Begland, claiming his sexual orientation and marriage to a man would prevent him from upholding Virginia law, which bans any recognition of same-sex relationships. Outside conservative groups, primarily the far-right Family Foundation, supported Marshall’s campaign and pressured Richmond lawmakers to reject Thorne-Begland’s nomination.

Following that rejection, the Richmond Circuit Court temporarily appointed Thorne-Begland to his current post when the General Assembly was not in session. For Thorne-Begland’s appointment to continue, it required an affirmative vote by the General Assembly in 2013.

In the Senate, Thorne-Begland’s nomination faced special scrutiny and reiteration by Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City, Poquoson, Hampton, Suffolk, York, Isle of Wight) that tradition in the upper chamber holds that senators in opposition to such a nomination would abstain from voting, rather than vote against.

First, Thorne-Begland’s nomination was singled out from the measure listing the other general district court nominations. The Senate approved both isolating Thorne-Begland and confirming the other nominees 39-0.

The Senate then voted on Thorne-Begland’s nomination, with 29 votes for, 1 against and 10 senators not voting. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, in his capacity as president of the Senate, ordered the clerk to strike the board, after which Norment repeated his earlier comments and chastised the one ”no” vote, saying, ”I hope it was just an error of pushing the wrong button.”

The second vote tally was 29 yes votes and 11 abstentions.

But then Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Page, Rappahannock, Shenandoah and Warren counties), after voting in favor of confirmation, asked to reconsider, resulting in yet another vote. The Senate’s final tally was 28-0, with 12 senators not voting.

According to a tweet from Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax counties), the only out gay member of the General Assembly, the 12 members of the Senate not voting on the nomination were all Republicans. A full roll call was not immediately available.

In the House, Thorne-Begland’s nomination received 66 votes in favor, 28 against, with one delegate voting to abstain. Unlike the Senate, where not voting is considered a form of protest against a nomination, the House typically expects members who wish to protest a nomination to vote ”no” or go on record as abstaining from voting.

Following Thorne-Begland’s confirmation Tuesday, LGBT rights group Equality Virginia issued a statement applauding the House’s actions.

”This is a big step forward after last year’s actions made embarrassing national headlines,” James Parrish, Equality Virginia’s executive director, said in a statement.

”Equality Virginia is pleased that the House of Delegates could see that Thorne-Begland is a qualified candidate with integrity and a long history of public service,” Parrish said. ”Thorne-Begland has served his country and his city with honor and unquestioned competence first as a Navy pilot and then as a prosecutor.”

”We’re glad the House of Delegates took a second look at his candidacy and this time the decision was based on his qualifications and not on who he is or who he loves,” Parrish continued, indirectly mentioning the antidiscrimination bill his group is backing during this session. ”While Thorne-Begland has been given another opportunity, without employment protections, most Virginians do not get a second chance at their jobs after being fired or not hired because of their sexual orientation.”

UPDATE: [Added Tuesday, Jan. 15, 4:48 p.m.] In the House of Delegates, 37 of 67 Republicans and 29 of 32 Democrats voted to confirm Thorne-Begland, according to a roll-call photo tweeted by Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond). Most of Thorne-Begland’s support came from the Tidewater region, the Norfolk-Hampton Roads-Virginia Beach metro area, the city of Richmond and its suburbs, and Northern Virginia.

All 28 delegates who voted against Thorne-Begland were Republicans, most from the Shenandoah Valley, Southwestern Virginia and Appalachia. Del. Riley Ingram (R-Chesterfield, Henrico, Prince George counties) was the lone abstention.

Three Democrats – Joseph Johnson (D-Dickenson, Russell, Washington and Wise counties), Johnny Joannou (D-Norfolk, Portsmouth) and Jeion Ward (D-Hampton) did not vote. Johnson and Joannou were the only Democrats in either chamber who voted against all four of Equality Virginia’s issues for the organization’s 2012 scorecard, earning the designation “anti-equality.” Ward has strong pro-equality record. 

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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