In a move which I’m sure their children will look back upon with great pride, Virginia lawmakers have blocked the appointment of a well-regarded prosecutor to the state’s bench.
Tracy Thorne-Begland serves as Chief Deputy Commonwealth Attorney in Richmond, and is a former Navy fighter pilot. By all accounts his professional record is impeccable, and his supervising attorney stated that he would have made an “outstanding judge.” Nonetheless, the state legislature voted 33-31 to block his appointment, and all of the votes against him came from Republicans.
Most of the people who voted against him didn’t even bother with a pretext. They claimed that the fact that he is gay and the fact that he is an advocate for gay rights causes meant that he couldn’t be an impartial judge.
This argument is, to be frank, completely absurd.
The notion that a person could not be an impartial judge because they served as activists in the past makes absolutely no sense. After all, every judge in the world is a person, and every person has opinions on a wide range of issues. You probably wouldn’t have heard anyone complaining if this judicial candidate had previously advocated for, say, environmental causes, or equal rights for African-Americans (or any other racial group). Nobody would speculate that such a record of advocacy would lead to someone pressing an “activist agenda” from the bench.
While this individual case is certainly unfortunate, and I imagine that the state will, sooner or later, see it for the embarrassment that it is; I think in some ways it’s a sign that the anti-gay rights movement is in its death throes. This reeks of a group of anti-gay forces becoming increasingly isolated and in the minority, and are simply lashing out at progress for LGBT individuals in the only way they know how: keeping them out of public life to the greatest extent possible.
However, recent polls show that public acceptance of LGBT rights, including same-sex marriage, is steadily increasing. Even in relatively conservative states like Virginia, the public probably won’t stand for this type of conduct for much longer.
Unfortunately, however, it appears that Mr. Thorne-Begland has little to no legal recourse. Generally, when it comes to voting to confirm judicial and other appointments, Congress, as well as state legislatures, are free to vote for or against a particular candidate, for any reason they like, and they are under no legal obligation to justify their voting choice (the political consequences of these votes are another issue entirely, however).
Furthermore, no federal law bans discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation, and while many states in the U.S. do ban such discrimination, Virginia does not appear to be one of them, and given the recent actions of its legislature, it’s doubtful that such a law is likely to be enacted in Virginia anytime soon. And I think that’s a shame.
In this relatively conservative state, Thorne-Begland has amassed quite a few supporters, with the likes of the governor and high-ranking judges calling the vote things like “embarrassing” and “disgraceful.” I tend to agree with them.
So, what can be done about this? Unfortunately, not much, at least in the short term. As discussed above, there is no legal recourse. And despite the fact that I think the lawmakers in this story did the wrong thing, and, frankly, should be ashamed of themselves, I think that the current method of appointing federal (and most state) judges, which involves an appointment by the chief executive (the president or governor), and confirmation by a majority of one or both houses of the relevant legislative body (Congress or the state legislature) is a good way to select judges.
Traditionally, the United States is seen as having three branches of government: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. While the executive and legislative branches (the President and Congress, respectively) are both more or less directly elected, the judiciary is not. Typically, judges are appointed by elected officials, and usually serve for life (or until retirement or removal by impeachment or other legal procedure).
This means that we have judges who are more or less insulated from the political process: to keep their jobs, they don’t have to campaign. In fact, they don’t even need to be popular. I think this is exactly how it should be: judges should be as free as possible to answer hard legal questions according to their good-faith interpretations of what the law and constitution require, and they should be as insulated as possible from the ever-shifting whims of public opinion and politics. In general, having major constitutional issues resolved by “unelected judges” (a term only used when a judge rules in a way the speaker doesn’t like) has served us pretty well.
It does come at an unfortunate cost, however: legislatures can decline to confirm highly-qualified judicial appointees for terrible reasons.
However, everything we value as a society comes at a cost: not living in a police state comes at the cost of a slightly higher risk of being a victim of a crime, and protecting our rights to privacy and due process entails a slightly higher risk that people guilty of crimes will escape.
Likewise, ensuring that we have an independent judiciary that is as free as possible from judicial pressure means that judges will sometimes be appointed by people desperately clinging to an old set of views, out of step with an ever-growing segment of mainstream society.