Tracy Thorne-Begland: Va. House panel welcomes first openly gay judge

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia's first openly gay judge appeared Monday to have an easier road to legislative appointment than he did last year when his bid was torpedoed by Republican opponents in a late-night House floor vote.

Tracy Thorne-Begland, who was appointed to a Richmond General District Court vacancy last summer by the Richmond Circuit Court after the General Assembly rejected him, received a warmer reception Monday before a GOP-dominated panel vetting judges.

The House Courts of Justice voted to certify a roster of 44 judges up for reappointment, including Thorne-Begland. As a general district judge, he presides over traffic offenses and minor crimes. The nominations go before the full House of Delegates on Tuesday.

The 40 minutes of questioning Thorne-Begland faced was longer than the other eight judicial nominees combined. Questions from Republicans on the joint House-Senate judicial interview panel about his honorable discharge from the Navy in 1992 after he disclosed his sexual orientation and about judicial activism were accommodating and even deferential, lacking last year's adversarial tone.

"I recognize that, for one reason or another, the last session many members of this body, in the House and the Senate, did not feel that they had adequate information with which to evaluate my candidacy, and I regret ... that I did not anticipate more thoroughly the need to address those issues," Thorne-Begland said.

In Virginia, permanent judicial appointments from the state Supreme Court down can be made only by the General Assembly with majority votes in both the 40-member Senate and the 100-member House of Delegates.

In a vote taken at 1:13 a.m. during a quickly-convened special session last May 15, Thorne-Begland received 33 votes for his appointment in the House, 18 shy of a 51-vote majority needed for confirmation. Thirty-one delegates cast votes against against him. But he was done in by the 36 delegates who either cast abstention votes - neither yes or no - or conveniently walked away from their desks when Thorne-Begland's vote was called. Of the 26 who did not vote, eight had voted on the nominee preceding Thorne-Begland, and would be back in their seats 23 seconds later to record their votes electronically on the next candidate after him.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R- Shenandoah, voted on every other judicial nominee last May except Thorne-Begland. He told Thorne-Begland on Monday that he would support him this year after the judge addressed concerns from conservative delegates last year that he had been an activist for gay-rights groups.

"When I think of an activist, I think of ... a tree-hugger who chains himself to a tree in the forest, someone who chains himself to a nuclear facility, or someone who conducts sit-ins in the halls of this legislature or on the steps of the Capitol, as we saw last year," he said. "I didn't take those actions."

He was assailed by conservatives last year who said the former Navy pilot violated his military oath by disclosing his sexual orientation to protest the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule that forced gay soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen to keep quiet. After that, Thorne-Begland ended a decorated Navy career with an honorable discharge.

"There were members of the armed forces who spoke up against Don't Ask, Don't Tell, wore their uniform and chained themselves to the White House fence. That is an act of civil disobedience, it is a violation of order and it is a violation of your oath as an officer," he said.

"I understand that people may see what I did as activism, but you can make darn sure that I did not take the steps that I did without reading the regulations, without consulting lawyers and without making sure I was not following just the letter of the law but the spirit of the law to say 'This policy hurts. It hurts good people,'" he told the crowded but hushed committee room.

Sen. Thomas K. Norment, the chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee and leader of the Senate's acting GOP majority, told Thorne-Begland he anticipates he will easily win confirmation in the Senate.