RICHMOND — The Virginia House of Delegates blocked the judicial nomination of a Richmond prosecutor and Navy veteran who would have become the state's first openly gay judge after a heated argument in the House of Delegates spilled into the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
A majority of Republicans defeated the selection of Richmond Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Tracy Thorne-Begland for a General District Court judgeship in the city, arguing that he had betrayed his military oath and questioning whether he could uphold a state Constitution that forbids same-sex marriage.
Mr. Thorne-Begland, who has adopted twins with his partner, was honorably discharged from the Navy and famously declared his sexual orientation on national television 20 years ago to protest the military's now-repealed "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
The vote in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates was 33-31, with 10 abstentions. Mr. Thorne-Begland needed a majority vote of members elected in both the House and Senate to get the post.
Eight Republicans joined 25 Democrats to vote "yea," while 31 Republicans voted no. Twenty-six members did not vote.
Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, one of the most socially conservatives members of the General Assembly, led the charge against Mr. Thorne-Begland, calling him "an aggressive activist for the pro-homosexual agenda."
Mr. Marshall, who is seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, co-sponsored a constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2006 barring same-sex couples from getting married in Virginia.
"Can this candidate swear the required oath to support our state's Constitution if he has already indicated by his past actions that he does not support that section of our Constitution barring same-sex legal relationships?" Mr. Marshall said. "While our judges and judicial candidates certainly have a right to free speech, they do not have the right to disregard the Virginia Constitution."
But Delegate G.M. "Manoli" Loupassi, a Richmond Republican who sponsored Mr. Thorne-Begland for the post, said that would not be an issue.
"He's eminently qualified," he said. "There are 12 years he's been prosecuting very serious crimes."
Mr. Loupassi said that cases that go before general district courts involve issues like, "Did John smack Mary?" and "Did someone trespass on someone's property?" - not issues where Mr. Thorne-Begland's sexual orientation would come into play. But, should such a conflict occur, Mr. Loupassi said, Mr. Thorne-Begland had already indicated he would recuse himself.
Democrats had strong words on the House vote. The evenly divided Senate voted 20-19 to not take up his nomination immediately, preventing members from taking an up-or-down vote on the nomination since Monday's session - which dragged on into Tuesday - was the final day.
"This is not our finest hour, when we did not even have the political courage to pass a vote on his behalf," said Senate Democratic caucus Chairman A. Donald McEachin, Henrico Democrat. "We are on the wrong side of history."
Sen. Adam P. Ebbin, who has witnessed countless debates on same-sex issues during his near decade-long tenure in the more conservative House, had strong words as well.
"I'm no longer a member of the House, but I sat there and was embarrassed and disgusted by what I saw," said the Arlington Democrat, the legislature's first openly gay member, adding that he was "ashamed" at the behavior of the Republican senators.
Gov. Bob McDonnell said it would be "very disappointing and unacceptable" if anyone voted against Mr. Thorne-Begland because of his sexual orientation.
"I believe candidates for judicial vacancies must be considered solely on their merit, record, temperament, aptitude, skill and commitment to follow the law," he said. "I have long made clear that discrimination on the basis of such factors as race, religion or sexual orientation is not acceptable in any judicial appointment process. In my consideration of judicial candidates I only consider the individual's ability to do the job well."
The debate comes as national Democrats and Republicans line up on either side of the tangential issues of same-sex marriage and civil unions.
President Obama publicly expressed his personal support for same-sex marriage last Wednesday after maintaining for some time that his views on the subject had been "evolving." That announcement came a day after North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages in the state.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden was widely credited with helping lay the groundwork for Mr. Obama by saying May 6 on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he was "absolutely comfortable" with married people of the same sex receiving the same rights and liberties afforded to heterosexual couples.
Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, went even further on Monday when he threw his support behind same-sex marriage, adding that there should be a national policy on the matter.
Despite his personal support, Mr. Obama said it should still be left up to the states. Thirty states have voted to adopt constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. The president said Monday that while he does not believe the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defines marriage as a man and a woman is constitutional, he declined to say whether he would work with Democrats in Congress to repeal it.
Pundits have started to describe the issue as a “litmus test” for the 2016 Democratic nomination for president. Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Martin O'Malley of Maryland, both among the leading contenders for the party's nod in four years, successfully backed the legalization of same-sex marriages in their respective states this year.
Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, a Democrat, issued an executive order Monday to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages as legal.
Still, despite bipartisan support in the Colorado state legislature, a proposal to legalize same-sex unions was blocked by Republicans in the state House Monday.
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