The Richmond Circuit Court on Thursday appointed a gay Richmond prosecutor to a General District Court judgeship a month after legislators blocked the appointment.
Chief Judge Richard D. Taylor Jr. signed an order naming Tracy Thorne-Begland to the seat beginning July 1 and expiring 30 days after the start of the next General Assembly session. Gay rights advocates have said he would be Virginia's first openly gay jurist.
The appointment was left to the court because the General Assembly failed to fill the seat in May, when Thorne-Begland was one of only two candidates among scores of judicial nominees not to be approved during an around-the-clock marathon spent mostly on budget amendments offered up by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Thorne-Begland received 33 yes votes, 31 no votes -- all from Republicans -- and 10 abstentions. Twenty-six House members, including seven Democrats, did not vote.
Among Thorne-Begland's fiercest critics was Delegate Robert G. Marshall, an outspoken anti-gay Republican from Prince William. Marshall said he opposed Thorne-Begland on grounds that he denied his true sexual orientation in a statement those entering the armed forces at the time were forced to sign in the era before President Bill Clinton instituted the “don't ask, don't tell” policy.
Thorne-Begland, a former Navy pilot, was honorably discharged after publicly disclosing his sexual orientation.
Some legislators said Thorne-Begland breached rules against those in uniform speaking out politically by appearing on national television news programs to discuss his sexual orientation. Later, Marshall said he also considered Thorne-Begland unfit for the bench because being openly gay clashes with his duty to uphold the Virginia Constitution, which includes an amendment that defines marriage solely as a monogamous union between a man and a woman.
In a statement Thursday, Sen. A. Donald McEachin applauded the court for “putting aside bigotry, prejudice and false excuses” in appointing Thorne-Begland, a successful deputy commonwealth's attorney in charge of handling the capital city's heavy caseloads of homicides, assaults and other violent crimes.
Republican legislative leaders in a statement said they were “surprised and disappointed” that the court “is substituting their judgment for that of the General Assembly and superseding the General Assembly's vested constitutional authority to choose judges.
“The circuit courts may fill a vacancy with the candidate of their choice to ensure that the court will function properly until the General Assembly meets again and can elect a judge for a full term,” the statement said. “The authority given to the circuit courts was not intended to function as an appeals process for candidates who have been previously rejected by the General Assembly. To place Mr. Thorne-Begland on the bench notwithstanding that rejection is to reach beyond the intended bounds of the circuit court's authority to make such recess appointments.”
Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation, said in a statement that as a member of the court, Thorne-Begland “now has the responsibility to uphold the Constitution, not apply his own personal, political agenda or viewpoint.”
“He will be watched very closely in the coming years,” she said.