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Navy vet is Virginia's first openly gay judge

Jan. 15, 2013 - 08:42PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 15, 2013 - 08:42PM  |  
Tracy Thorne-Berglan appears during testimony before a joint House and Senate Courts of Justice committee at the General Assembly Building in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 14.
Tracy Thorne-Berglan appears during testimony before a joint House and Senate Courts of Justice committee at the General Assembly Building in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 14. (Bob Brown / Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
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RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia's House of Delegates voted Tuesday to confirm Tracy Thorne-Begland as the state's first openly gay jurist, resolving a simmering social issue that last spring opened not only a deep partisan rift, but also a division among Republicans.

Without debate, the House voted 66-28 with one abstention and five delegates not voting to confirm Thorne-Begland, a former Navy pilot who left the military after disclosing his sexual orientation and became a prosecutor for a six-year term in Richmond General District Court.

He also won easy confirmation with 28 votes in his favor in the state Senate, where Democrats and Republicans hold 20 seats apiece. There was no debate about Thorne-Begland's merits as a jurist, but confusion over parliamentary protocols and Senate voting traditions resulted in the vote being taken three times.

There was no reply Tuesday to a telephone message seeking comment from Thorne-Begland.

On May 12, in a vote taken at 1:13 a.m. at the end of a contentious 13-hour special session, Thorne-Begland fell 18 votes short of the necessary majority of 51 in the House.

Thirty-one delegates cast outright votes against him in May, and 36 cast abstention votes or briefly left their desks for Thorne-Begland's vote.

On Monday, during 40 minutes of questioning before a panel of senators and delegates vetting judicial nominees, Thorne-Begland addressed criticisms raised last year and won commitments of support from lawmakers who opposed him or did not vote last spring.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said he was impressed at Thorne-Begland's answers about his exit from the Navy, where he was honorably discharged, and was confident that he would not be a judicial activist in hearing traffic offenses and minor crimes. In May, Gilbert voted on every other judge the House considered except Thorne-Begland.

The vote in both chambers found Democrats solidly supporting Thorne-Begland with Republicans divided. In the House, where Republicans hold 68 of the 100 seats, 37 Republicans supported Thorne-Begland while 30 either voted against him or did not vote. Twenty-nine of the 32 House Democrats voted for Thorne-Begland.

In the Senate, eight Republicans voted for Thorne-Begland and 12 did not vote which, under Senate rules, is the method for opposing a judicial candidate rather than a direct no vote. All 20 Democrats voted for him.

"The vote today confirmed that irrespective of your race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, the only crucial and paramount quality is judicial fairness and open mindedness," said Joe Morrissey, D-Henrico. "I am extremely pleased that Mr. Thorne-Begland is now Judge Thorne-Begland."

Social conservatives who lost their bid to keep Thorne-Begland off the bench warned that the Republican Party risks suffering defections from religious right voters with Tuesday's defections.

"Republicans in Washington have abandoned their no-tax label or pledge, and now Republicans here are abandoning their social issue stand, or what's left of it," said Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, who is among the General Assembly's most stalwart advocates for Christian conservatives. "People who've supported these members in the past will probably sit this one out. They won't tolerate what happened today."

Associated Press Writer Larry O'Dell contributed to this report.

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