Last edited: December 05, 2004

Judge Selection Takes on Sexual Tones

The Virginian-Pliot, January 17, 2003
P.O. Box 449, Norfolk, VA 23501-0449
Fax: 757 446-2051

RICHMOND—Controversies involving three judges are raising accusations that some Republican legislators want to make judicial candidates’ attitudes about sexual orientation a factor in whether they are reappointed.

At the center of the debate are two Virginia Beach Republicans who lead the committees charged with interviewing new and incumbent judges. Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle has been chairman of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee since 2000, while Del. Robert F. McDonnell took charge of the House committee this year.

Both lawmakers strongly reject any suggestion that the legislature is moving toward a litmus test based on judges’ personal opinions about sexuality, much less their own sexual orientation. But the legislators say a judge’s rulings and written opinions about sexual issues are legitimate considerations.

The three cases before the General Assembly this year bear little in common beyond the element of sexual orientation.

. Newport News Judge Verbena M. Askew will answer questions today over whether she did not tell lawmakers she had been accused of sexually harassing another woman, who has been subpoenaed by legislators.

. Virginia Supreme Court Justice Barbara M. Keenan, a resident of Virginia Beach, was questioned by legislators last week on a dissenting opinion in which she argued against removing a child from the mother’s custody solely because the mother is a lesbian. Keenan was unanimously re-elected this week after legislators said they were satisfied with her explanation.

. Judge Rosemarie P. Annunziata’s reappointment to the state Court of Appeals was delayed after she was queried about a dissenting opinion in another case involving a lesbian mother.

Annunziata argued that the court majority applied a double standard in the case of a child whose mother became involved in a lesbian relationship after the break-up of her marriage. The court gave primary custody to the father, who was in a relationship with another woman he said he planned to marry. State senators have already approved Annunziata’s reappointment, but delegates have asked her to return for a second interview.

The three cases have raised concerns among advocates for gay and lesbian rights.

"This is without question a targeted effort to get rid of judges they think are sympathetic to gay issues," said Joseph R. Price, chairman of Equality Virginia.

Some legislators say they, too, are uncomfortable.

"It appears to be more than a coincidence," said Del. Kenneth R. Melvin, D-Portsmouth. "It seems to me there’s an inordinate curiosity about legal opinions that touch upon sexual orientation. I worry that so many questions have been asked in that area."

Stolle and McDonnell said Askew’s case is about accusations of misconduct and her failure to inform them of those allegations, not her sexual orientation. They said questions in the other two cases were appropriate, and noted that both judges also were grilled about decisions with no sexual overtones.

"I find it almost incomprehensible that anybody would find fault with looking at the work product of judges," McDonnell said.

Stolle noted that bills dealing with sexual orientation issues are introduced and debated every year in the legislature. He said it should be no surprise when such questions arise during judicial interviews.

"Sexual orientation is a pressing issue in the community today," he said. "But sexual orientation in my view is not something that qualifies or disqualifies a person to be a judge in Virginia."

McDonnell declined to discuss his personal feelings on that issue, saying it was irrelevant to the three cases before his committee.

McDonnell was quoted in a published news report this week suggesting that a person who commits sodomy, which is illegal in Virginia, might not be qualified to be a judge. McDonnell said Thursday his comments were "mischaracterized."

Some legislators are vehement that the state’s ban on oral and anal sex raises serious questions about whether homosexuals should be judges.

"Homosexuality is a form of sexual misconduct that is a crime," said Del. Bradley P. Marrs, R-Chesterfield. "I don’t believe in the genetic explanation of homosexuality, so to say someone is a homosexual means that person is engaged in illegal behavior on a regular basis."

  • Staff writer Warren Fiske contributed to this report. Reach Christina Nuckols at 804-697-1562 or

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