The General Assembly's judicial appointment subcommittees meet today to consider the full-time appointment of Richmond's Manchester General District Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland -- the first openly gay person to serve on the bench in the commonwealth.
If the Courts of Justice Committees of the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate certify his nomination for a six-year term, it will again be put to a vote of the GOP-dominated House, where it foundered last May in a late-hour decision that angered and embarrassed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Though he had bipartisan support and had been certified in the committee process, Thorne-Begland's appointment was derailed when social conservatives raised issues over his sexual orientation and some delegates with military backgrounds questioned his decision in 1992 to publicly come out while serving as an aviator in the U.S. Navy. At the time, the military had a policy -- now defunct -- against homosexuals serving in the armed forces.
With the job left unfilled, the judges of Richmond's Circuit Court in June appointed Thorne-Begland, a highly respected former Richmond prosecutor, to fill the vacant Manchester judgeship on an interim basis.
Thorne-Begland, 46, has served on the bench since then, handling a full docket of cases in the busy South Richmond courthouse.
Observers of the political process surrounding the nomination say Thorne-Begland comes to today's judicial interviews in a much stronger position to be confirmed for a full, six-year appointment.
They say Thorne-Begland has spent the intervening months meeting with lawmakers who had expressed concern over his nomination and interest in learning more about his military service, his background and his qualifications to serve on the bench.
A number of lawmakers who did not vote on his nomination or cast votes against Thorne-Begland are expected to be supportive if it comes before the full House for another vote.
And some who are still unsure or in opposition said they came away impressed by the career prosecutor and decorated military veteran.
"I think he has every qualification to serve on the bench," said Del. Richard L. Anderson, R-Prince William, a retired colonel who last year opposed Thorne-Begland.
Anderson said that while he may still vote against the nomination "on this very narrow question" of Thorne-Begland's decision to speak in opposition to a military policy, he believes Thorne-Begland is a "conscientious public servant" whose sexual orientation is about "as germane as the color of his eyes" when it comes to his fitness for the bench.
And perhaps most importantly, Thorne-Begland, whose interim appointment was backed by many in Richmond's legal community, comes to the interview with six months of experience doing the job -- a job that he is doing quite well, according to a recent report by the City of Richmond Bar Association.
The report, which lawmakers are scheduled to receive today, was requested by Richmond's General Assembly delegation. It consists of findings by a four-person panel assigned to assess Thorne-Begland's judicial temperament, professional aptitude and diligence.
The report concludes that "Judge Thorne-Begland demonstrated the utmost professionalism" and strikes "an appropriate balance between being respectful and considerate to the parties and counsel before him, on the one hand, and respecting the gravity of the matters before the court."
The report also states that Thorne-Begland was decisive on motions and ruled on objections "quickly and confidently." And it praised him for being "prepared and diligent in the management of his docket" and attentive and fair in the cases before him.
"This analysis comports with what I have heard -- that he is very well-liked and doing an excellent job," said Del. G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, who sponsored Thorne-Begland's nomination to the bench last year and is his sponsor this time around.
"He is extremely qualified, and he's been doing a very good job for six or seven months, so I'm hopeful (lawmakers) will take these things into consideration -- and I think they will."
Last May, Thorne-Begland received 33 votes in the House. Thirty-one cast ballots against him, while the rest of the House either abstained or was not present for the early morning vote.
Judicial candidates' nominations need at least 51 votes to clear the House before heading to the Senate.
(804) 649-6061 ___