One of the General Assembly's most important jobs is to elect judges throughout Virginia. The commonwealth is made up of four levels of state courts is ascending order: General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts, Circuit Courts, Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court of Virginia. Virginia has 32 districts and within each district there is a court in each city and county. On Monday, the General Assembly will return to Richmond to deal with Governor Bob McDonnell's budget amendments and with the appointment of judges. Currently, there are several vacancies throughout the court system. The appointment of state judges usually receives very little public input. Legislators make recommendations to Senate and House committees, which certify that the nominees are qualified members of the Virginia bar, under state law.
One of the individuals who will be voted on by the General Assembly Monday as a nominee for a judgeship, Tracy Thorne-Begland, has a long history of political activism, was at the forefront of repealing the federal "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, and once served as a board member and vice chairman for Equality Virginia, the commonwealth's largest and most influential homosexual activist group. In fact, this nominee for Richmond’s 13th General District Court was with President Obama when he signed the repeal of DADT. Additionally, Mr. Thorne-Begland has lashed out publicly against Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli on a host of issues related to the homosexual agenda, saying, "He’s already stood in the way" in relation to Mr. Cuccinelli's urging of public colleges and universities to follow state law when it comes to non-discrimination policies. Thorne-Begland also criticized Mr. Cuccinelli for being "against hate crime laws" and "employment discrimination" protections based on sexual behavior.
One statement he made in 2004 in particular stands out. In an interview with Richmond Magazine, Thorne-Begland said, "In Virginia, we’re seeing a different situation. The situation is so hostile to gay and lesbian interests, particularly the judicial system, a lot of gay and lesbians choose to leave." It’s the "particularly the judicial system" statement that is especially concerning. Does he plan to use his position as a judge to accomplish his political agenda?
In 2004, Mr. Thorne-Begland was asked his opinion of the Marriage Affirmation Act, a law that was the model for Virginia's Marriage Amendment, and Virginia's climate toward homosexuals. Mr. Thorne-Begland signaled his optimism and said:
Perfect example: Virginia is the only state in the union that allows businesses to decide whether they can offer health care to gays and lesbians. When progressive representatives in the legislature sought to require businesses to extend domestic-partner benefits, laws are adopted that outright coerce Virginians to accept this way of thinking.
Mr. Thorne-Begland's thoughts regarding the use of coercion to change minds and force private businesses to follow his agenda flies directly in the face of free market political principles. The question is, will his personal political agenda take precedent over Virginia law and the constitution? Is he going to uphold laws he clearly and very publicly disagrees with? What does he believe is the role of the courts in moving in a more "progressive" direction? These concerns have come to light in the time since members of the General Assembly's Judicial Appointment subcommittee interviewed him.
There is additional concern that, once appointed, a progressively minded judge would be fast-tracked by a liberal governor or president to a higher court, such as the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Considering that judges have extraordinary power, one would hope that they would have a commitment to the state and federal constitutions that overrides their personal political agendas. When one is a judicial nominee who has shown himself to be willing to personally violate the law (he violated DADT while in the Navy) and publicly attack a sitting attorney general who is enforcing the law, we share the concerns of several members of the General Assembly, and would hope that it takes a long, hard look at whether that person should elected to the bench.
Until we can be assured he will not put his obvious political agenda ahead of the law, we don't believe he should be approved.