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Military Veteran Delegates Defend Denying Judgeship

posted May 23rd, 2012

The following is an op-ed by several of my colleagues in the House of Delegates who are military veterans explaining opposition to electing Tracy Thorne-Begland as a District Court Judge:

Bad Judgment: Not the Stuff of Would-be Judges

A key function of the General Assembly is to elect judges. Unlike other states, this task falls squarely on the shoulders of the General Assembly and we must select judges of the highest character and ability. If either condition is lacking, we must ask “is this candidate worthy of selection?”

Such was the case on Monday, May 14th, when the House of Delegates chose not to elect Richmond prosecutor Tracy Thorne-Begland as a District Court Judge. Advocates for Mr. Thorne-Begland point to his prosecutorial abilities, however, they ignore that as a naval officer in 1992, he violated clear military directives not to appear on television to advocate for a personal cause. Nevertheless, Mr. Thorne-Begland made that appearance, ignoring the requirements of duty that he voluntarily took an oath to uphold. We contend that Mr. Thorne-Begland exercised profoundly bad judgment in using his military office to advance a personal cause, in this case sexual orientation, on national television; an act he knew was prohibited.

Let’s begin with the oath those of us who served the nation in war and peace took when we were commissioned. “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.”A key word here is “duties” and among them are fidelity to rules and regulations of the military and support for the chain of command. When an officer violates this fidelity for a personal cause, no matter how sincerely held, he has broken his trust with the service he has sworn to obey. An officer who does so demonstrates exceptionally bad judgment. Those who don’t think that oaths, discipline, and fidelity to the chain of command matter, fail to comprehend how the military must function if it is to be effective in combat, which is it’s raison d’être. It may be difficult for someone who has not served to understand the depth to which we hold this oath, but it is profound.

An officer shirks his duty when he willingly and knowingly violates a lawful directive of the military and his chain of command by appearing in the media to advocate for a personal cause he believes is more important than the oath he took. The prohibition to “participate in any radio, television, or other program or group discussion as an advocate for or against a partisan political party, candidate, orcause” is unambiguous, yet Mr. Thorne-Begland violated it knowingly. Some say, “Well, what about his First Amendment right to free speech?” Simply put, when you join the military, you give up your right to free speech when it comes to good order and discipline. You can’t say anything you want about any cause, no matter how deeply held, when, in doing so, you speak publicly in contravention to the policies of your service. You can be sure that many of us who have served this nation have had times when we didn’t agree with our chain of command and in some cases may have felt the orders and requirements were misguided. But no matter what side of an issue you take, you do not, as a military member, have the right to speak publicly against your service and chain of command to advance your personal beliefs.

A case in point was the recent discharge of a young Marine sergeant who made disparaging comments about President Barack Obama, his Commander-in-Chief. That sergeant may have felt, as Thorne-Begland did, that he was right in speaking out, but that Marine was wrong to do so and should have been discharged, as he was. And if he ever becomes a lawyer, moves to Virginia, and seeks a judgeship, he shouldn’t be surprised when we don’t support him either. In both cases, the proper course of action would have been to resign from the service, hang up the uniform, put on civilian garb, and speak to your heart’s content.

In the military, we take oaths, duty, good order and discipline very seriously because we know the important role they play in creating an effective fighting force. We think no less of these values when selecting judges. If you exhibit bad judgment and indiscipline, you shouldn’t be a judge. Mr. Thorne-Begland’s decision to go on national television to advocate for a personal cause in violation of his sworn duties to his service indicates poor judgment and a lack of regard for the institution he swore to serve and respect. These aren’t the qualities we seek in a jurist.

Delegate (Colonel) Rich Anderson (R-51 and US Air Force Retired), Delegate (Commander) Mark Cole (R-88 and USNR Retired), Delegate (Lt. Commander) John Cosgrove (R-78 and USNR), Delegate (Colonel) Mark Dudenhefer (R-2 and US Marine Corps Retired), Delegate (Sergeant) Tim Hugo (R-40 and US Army Reserve), Delegate (Colonel) L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-31 and US Army Retired), Delegate (Commander) Chris Stolle (R-83 and US Navy, Retired) and Delegate (Captain) Thomas “Tag” Greason (R-31 and Army National Guard) all serve in the Virginia House of Delegates of the General Assembly.