Family Foundation’s claims disputed in Thorne-Begland controversy

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Family Foundation’s claims disputed in Thorne-Begland controversy

Tracy Thorne-Begland on ABC's "Nightline," May 19, 1992.

Tracy Thorne-Begland on ABC's "Nightline," May 19, 1992.

RICHMOND–A Virginia lawmaker is challenging claims by social conservatives that the legislature’s judicial subcommittee did not have the opportunity to properly vet potential judges before they initially approved an openly gay nominee.

Prosecutor Tracy Thorne-Begland’s judicial nomination was thought to be uncontroversial through most of the process. He sailed through the bipartisan subcommittee’s questioning more than a month ago with no lawmakers raising concerns about his sexual orientation or activism.

But the nomination was derailed in the state’s House of Delegates last week after the Family Foundation of Virginia launched a last-minute campaign to keep him off the bench.

The Family Foundation raised concerns about Thorne-Begland’s advocacy for LGBT rights. The group pointed in particular to the fact that he was discharged from the Navy following his decision to come out as gay in 1992 in protest of the military’s ban on gay and lesbian service members.

Information on Thorne-Begland’s military history was widely available prior to the subcommittee interview. He wrote an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2010 explaining his decision to come out and discussed it in multiple other interviews over the past two decades.

But legislators and the Family Foundation expressed no concerns about his candidacy until just days before the full House of Delegates voted on his appointment, and as a result, Thorne-Begland and his supporters had little opportunity to respond to the criticism.

In an interview last week with The American Independent, Family Foundation official Chris Freund claimed that subcommittee process had been insufficient and that lawmakers didn’t have an opportunity to “vet him thoroughly.”

“They don’t have a lot of time,” Freund said of lawmakers on the judicial subcommittee. “They can ask questions but it’s just simply based on a resume that’s put in front of them and some paperwork and they kind of take the word of the legislators who have brought the individuals before the committee.”

But Democratic Del. Jennifer McClellan, who serves on the House Courts of Justice committee, disputes Freund’s assertions. McClellan tells TAI that lawmakers had time to prepare for the judicial interviews and could ask as many questions as they wanted.

“The judicial interviews are not under a time limit,” McClellan says. “I sat through interviews in which sitting judges and judicial candidates are grilled for sometimes up to an hour over concerns raised by the press, individuals, or lawmakers.”

McClellan said the case of Norfolk Circuit Judge Norman Thomas showed that lawmakers had the ability to go far beyond reviewing “resumes” and could have thoroughly investigated candidates they had concerns about.

Thomas pleaded no contest to a charge of violating a protective order in 2005. At his reappointment interview in December 2011, lawmakers asked Thomas to explain in detail his involvement in the incident and ultimately decided not to reappoint him, McClellan said.

McClellan said Thorne-Begland received one question during his subcommittee interview about a courtroom dispute he was involved in, but no questions about his discharge from the military, his decision to come out on television, or his gay rights advocacy.

“Delegate Cline asked him what kind of plane he flew when he was in the Navy,” McClellan said. “Given the way the Republican caucus talks, if anyone had concerns they would have asked more questions.”