Gavel Grab

Commentary: Removing ‘Taint of Blatant Partisanship’ in Virginia

The selection of judges should be above politics, but that’s far from the case when Virginia legislators choose judges, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, a Democrat and former gubernatorial candidate, writes in a Roanoke (Va.) Times op-ed:

“The deal-making that produces judges is not done in the open air, rather in the bowels of the General Assembly building. The process is fraught with smoky-room politics. While I believe our process is superior to direct election of judges because of concerns about the influence of campaign contributions in the judiciary, the taint of blatant partisanship cannot be avoided when a small group of individuals make critical decisions with limited involvement of the public.”

Virginia is one of two states where judges are chosen by the legislature. Deeds calls for reforms that would place more emphasis on merit-based selection and on transparency, Read more

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Utah Judiciary Gains Diversity, Va.’s First Black Judge to Step Down

Utah attorney Renee Jimenez has been appointed to the state’s 3rd District Juvenile Court, becoming the second minority judicial candidate nominated by Gov. Gary Herbert, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.

“Gov. Herbert recognizes that diversity on the bench is important, said Minority Bar President Jesse Nix in a statement. “Minority kids, regardless of their race or ethnicity or economic background, will believe that a judge that looks like them will listen and be interested in helping them become law-abiding and productive citizens.”

Only 9 percent of all Utah judges are minorities, the article says, and just 24 percent are women. Jimenez will fill the vacancy of retiring Judge Frederic Oddone, who served on the court for almost two decades.

In Virginia, the first African American appointed to serve as a federal judge will step down next year to become a senior judge.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch says that U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer is set to semi-retire on March 25, 2014. He will take on a smaller caseload as a senior judge.

Spencer was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 at the age of 37. In an interview at that time, he said that being the first African American federal judge in Virginia did not mean much to him.

“I’ve always… been the first black or the only black. That’s not a victory. I think it is too bad. I long for the day when it will be so insignificant that it will become irrelevant,” he said during the interview.

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Editorial: Justice Denied No Longer for Virginia Judge

Justice finally came this week for Virginia Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland almost a year after he was nominated, a News & Advance editorial says.

On Tuesday, the House of Delegates reversed itself from a vote against Thorne-Begland last year, and voted 66-28 to grant Judge him a full six-year term as a General District Court judge (see Gavel Grab).

Republican Del. Robert Marshall and the Family Research Council, a conservative group, led an effort against Thorne-Begland’s election to the bench in early 2012, since he is openly gay. Read more

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Virginia Legislature Votes to Confirm Openly Gay Judge

Last year, prosecutor Tracy Thorne-Begland became Virginia’s first openly gay judge despite strong opposition in the state legislature; Richmond Circuit Court judges handed him an interim appointment (see Gavel Grab).

On Tuesday, Thorne-Begland and his backers overcame the questions raised by legislators about his political activism and sexual orientation. The House of Delegates reversed itself from last year and voted 66-28 to grant Judge Thorne-Begland a full six-year term as a General District Court judge, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article. The state Senate then followed suit and voted 28-0 to confirm him.

The political climate changed so much that the House held no open debate when it took up Thorne-Begland’s judgeship, the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot reported. On Monday, his nomination had passed muster with a panel of House and Senate legislators.

During debate in May 2012, conservatives contended  Thorne-Begland’s support for marriage for same-sex couples and his challenging the military’s now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy made him unsuitable for the judgeship. A former fighter pilot, he was discharged honorably from the Navy.

In subsequent private sessions and in a public hearing, the judge has worked to resolve concerns of legislators who thought he had broken the military’s rules by speaking out publicly.


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Bill Would Change Interim Judicial Appointments in Virginia

Virginia’s legislature will see an attempt to block the kind of interim appointment to the bench that occurred earlier this year and involved an openly gay former prosecutor.

Tracy Thorne-Begland was rejected by Virginia legislators for a trial court judgeship, but the Richmond Circuit Court judges gave him an interim appointment to the court (see Gavel Grab). There was fiery controversy over his nomination and appointment.

Now Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts, reports that “Under a bill just introduced, however, such an interim appointment would no longer be permissible.” The legislature does not meet until January. The Gavel to Gavel article suggests that the legislation appears to stem from the events surrounding Thorne-Begland’s appointment.

The National Center for State Courts is a JAS partner group.

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Editorial: ‘Bravo’ for Court’s Appointing Openly Gay Judge

The Richmond, Va. Circuit Court judges who appointed the state’s first openly gay judge, and those elected officials and lawyers who expressed support for him, deserve high praise, a Washington Post editorial said. It also condemned “old-fashioned bigotry” that led GOP legislators to block the judge’s nomination earlier.

Tracy Thorne-Begland, a prosecutor and former fighter pilot, made news when his nomination was rejected last month, and again when he was given an interim trial court appointment last week (see Gavel Grab). When his appointment expires next winter and the General Assembly meets to consider the opening, the debate likely will be renewed.

“Bravo for the higher court. And hurrah for the leaders of Richmond’s five biggest law firms, who publicly endorsed Mr. Thorne-Begland’s candidacy, saying ‘he would be an outstanding jurist,’” the editorial said. It also commended Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, among elected officials expressing support for Thorne-Begland.

Next winter, the editorial said, “The outcome of the debate over Mr. Thorne-Begland will say a lot about the commonwealth — whether it remains in thrall to bigots or is ready to Read more

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He Never Opposed Gay Judges, Virginia Governor Says

Virginia’s Republican Governor, Robert F. McDonnell, said he believes in judicial selection based on merit and has never opposed  judges because they are gay. On a radio show, he said his effort as a legislator to unseat a lesbian judge in 2003 was different.

McDonnell (photo) was asked by the host of WTOP’s “Ask the Governor” program about the 2003 episode, according to a Washington Post article. At the time,  he questioned whether a person could serve as a judge if the person had engaged in sex in violation of an anti-sodomy statute then in effect in Virginia (and since ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court).

This week, McDonnell said, “I was very clear in other statements of the time that those factors should not be an element of the decision making.” In fact, McDonnell said, the judge was not reappointed in 2003 because an accusation was made that she had sexually harassed a female employee and had failed to report the employee’s lawsuit against her on a judicial application.

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Gay Prosecutor Might Get Another Shot at Virginia Judgeship

Tracy Thorne-Begland, an openly gay prosecutor, was rejected last week by the Virginia legislature for a trial court judgeship (see Gavel Grab). But it is possible that Circuit Court judges in Richmond could pick him for the judgeship on an interim basis.

Thorne-Begland’s sponsors in the legislature have supported him for an interim judgeship, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, and his backers have tried to clear up what they consider some misunderstandings about his Navy background and the conditions of his honorable discharge.

If the Circuit Court judges select an individual to fill the post on an interim basis, that judge would be subject to approval by the legislature after it returns to work in January.

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Washington Post: ‘Bigotry’ Responsible for Rejection of Gay Judge

The Virginia legislature’s rejection of an openly gay judicial candidate represented a triumph for “bigotry and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” a Washington Post editorial said.

Conservatives contended Tracy Thorne-Begland’s support for same-sex marriage and his challenging the military’s now-defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy made him unsuitable for the judgeship (see Gavel Grab). A former fighter pilot who was discharged honorably from the Navy, Thorne-Begland (photo) is a Richmond prosecutor.

The editorial decried how Thorne-Begland’s nomination “was sabotaged by an ugly campaign of homophobic bigotry led by Virginia Republicans. In a vote at 1 a.m. Tuesday, the GOP-dominated House of Delegates, with an avowed homophobe leading the charge, killed his candidacy, thereby ensuring that Virginia state courts remain free of openly gay judges.”

A New York Times article was headlined, “Gay Prosecutor is Denied Virginia Judgeship Despite Partisan Support.” The article placed the Virginia battle in a national political context, saying “The rejection comes as the country is in the midst of a roiling debate over same-sex marriage that has placed the civil rights of gays and lesbians in the national spotlight.”

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Virginia Legislature Rejects Openly Gay Judge Candidate

The nomination of Tracy Thorne-Begland for a Richmond, Va. general district court judgeship was rejected by the General Assembly. Conservatives contended his support for same-sex marriage and his challenging the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy made him unsuitable for a judgeship.

Thorne-Begland would have become the first openly gay judge elected in Virginia had he been confirmed, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article. The Senate let his nomination pass by for the day, effectively killing it due to the lateness of the legislative hour, and the House voted 33 to 31, with 10 abstentions, to make Thorne-Begland a judge. He needed 51 votes of support in the 100-member chamber to take the bench, the Washington Post reported.

Republican Del. Robert G. Marshall, who led an effort against Thorne-Begland’s election to the bench, said, “He holds himself out as being married.” In Virginia, same-sex marriage is not legal, Marshall said, and Thorne-Begland’s “life is a contradiction to the requirement of submission to the constitution.”

“The debate in the House of Delegates was homophobic and embarrassing and showed a disrespect to a chief deputy commonwealth attorney and decorated veteran who was honorably discharged,” said Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, a Democrat and the state’s first openly gay senator. “It’s offensive that the Senate wouldn’t even grant Lt. Thorne-Begland the courtesy of a vote.”

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