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An Oath of Service Betrayed – by One-Third of the Virginia House of Delegates

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During the recent debate on the judicial nomination of Tracy Thorne-Begland for appointment to the General District Court bench, social conservative members of the House of Delegates repeatedly claimed that Mr. Thorne-Begland was unfit to serve as a judge because he had violated his duty to his country when he chose to declare his sexual orientation while in active military service.  They likewise claimed that he betrayed his oath as a commissioned officer, thus calling into question his integrity and faithfulness to his mission.  These Delegates sought to vote down Mr. Thorne-Begland's nomination, extolling the sanctity of an oath and a duty that he allegedly broke.

For the moment, put aside the fact that the Virginia General Assembly chose to let ignorance prevail in its consideration of a learned individual for judicial appointment.  Put aside the fact that the nomination of a decorated former Navy pilot, career prosecutor, loving father, and highly respected member of the community was derailed due to the fear-mongering of a coalition seduced by the McCarthyistic power of the bully pulpit.

Put all of that aside and contemplate how our representatives in the House of Delegates regarded their own oath of office, their own duty of service, when it came time to vote on Mr. Thorne-Begland's nomination.  

Out of 100 members of the House of Delegates, only sixty-four members cast a vote on this critical, judicial nomination.  Ten members abstained, and twenty-six members simply did not vote.

More than one-third of our elected representatives in the House of Delegates chose not to cast a vote on a judicial nomination.

Prior to assuming office, each member of the House of Delegates must swear an oath of service, which states, "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent upon me ... according to the best of my ability, (so help me God)."  Va. Code §49-1.  Furthermore, Rule 30 of the House of Delegates, passed in January 2012, dictates that "No member shall absent himself from the service of the House unless he has leave granted by the Speaker or is sick or otherwise unable to attend and such leave shall be entered upon the Journal."

These Delegates swore faithful and impartial discharge of all the duties incumbent upon them, which presumably includes voting upon judicial nominations.  They took an oath as officers of the Commonwealth, as elected representatives of the people of Virginia.  There is no exception clause for when the vote may be controversial.  There is no exclusion footnote for when the debate makes a representative uncomfortable.  There is no expiration time for when the debate lasts past the midnight hour.  

Faithful and impartial discharge of duties is unequivocally clear - steadfast, unbiased representation.  Nevertheless, more than one-third of the House of Delegates equivocated when called upon to exercise their basic duty - to vote.

Edmund Burke is credited as once saying, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."  Through its treatment of Mr. Thorne-Begland's nomination, the Virginia House of Delegates twice failed all Virginians.  First, it failed to appoint to the Virginia bench a bi-partisan nominee of unquestionable character and legal acumen.  Second, it failed to fulfill the oath it swore to Virginians by not even showing up to vote.

When It Comes to the Budget, Mandating Consent Does Not Work Either

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During a time in which our Commonwealth continues to ride the waves of economic uncertainty, we look to our representatives to guide us through the storm and secure our safe landing.  Specifically, we look for legislation that would encourage job growth, shore up our infrastructure, and support those within our populace who are most affected by the recent recession.  Although we recognize that we collectively may be asked to tighten our belts with decreased spending and/or funding cuts, we hope that the oft-stated campaign priorities of education and public safety would ring true when tough decisions need to be made.

However, many entered this past General Assembly session with trepidation for reasons far from the economic concerns weighing our minds.  Instead of addressing the issues of greatest import to their constituents, the newly-empowered Republican leadership chose to advance a socially conservative agenda, believing they had the political capital to cash.  Emboldened by their representative numbers, they took aim at women's healthcare most viciously, but they also attacked voters' rights.  They even mobilized the repeal of a handgun law that had a proven correlation to decreased violent crime, thus ensuring our continued dominance as the number one out-of-state source of crime guns in New York, and one of the top suppliers of crime guns nationally.  

In short, the Republicans this session created solutions looking for problems, using red herrings instead of truth for support.  And now, there seems to be genuine albeit obtuse perplexity as to why there is bipartisan rancor in the halls.

The Governor and Republican leadership have been vilifying the Senate Democrats for refusing to acquiesce to the budget that is pending in the Senate. The Governor is likewise being challenged to answer tough questions about funding decisions in his proposed budget that he will either have to answer or, by his silence, admit the disingenuousness of the rhetoric used by him and others to support the laws his party pushed.  For example, the proposed budget would eliminate funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs, while at the same time create a de facto barrier to abortion services by not funding the mandated ultrasound now required of all women.  Grand, idealized statements about education, children, safety, and health may serve well in press releases and speeches, but the true intention behind legislation is revealed when dollar signs are attached (or denied).

This past General Assembly session, Virginia's future progress was being bartered for myopic regression. Yet, through his public challenges to Senate Democrats, the Governor seemingly believes there should be a mandate upon the Democrats to consent to the budget that has been presented. As many have tried to explain in other contexts, mandating acquiescence does not equate to consent, especially when such consent is explicitly required in our Commonwealth's Constitution.

In criticizing the current budget impasse, Governor McDonnell stated, "[t]his is not the kind of history that the mother of presidents and cradle of democracy should be making." Much that has occurred this past General Assembly session was not the kind of history that Virginia should have been making.

What the Kerfuffle is Really About – an Open Letter to the Governor

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As a Virginia citizen, and especially as a woman and a mother of a daughter, I have voiced my opposition to the mandatory ultrasound bill.  Although I participated in the public protests to this legislation, I also sought to engage legislators and other constituents in discussions tempered with mutual respect and moderate voice.  When the Virginia Senate passed this bill, I expressed my profound disappointment in what I viewed as the misguided failure of our legislative process.  Nevertheless, I strove to maintain an open dialogue, free of platitudes and presumptions.

This evening, I learned that my Governor does not hold to the same rules in this debate.

Last Friday, Governor McDonnell sat down with National Review Online's Jim Geraghty to discuss "the kerfuffle over the ultrasound bill."  I recommend this piece to every Virginian to read as the Governor has used this platform to express his perspective (http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/292574/mcdonnell-talks-super-tuesday-interview?pg=1)

Below are his words.  I would like to use this platform to share my responses:

"If you just read the papers, you have no idea what's going on in the legislature because the reporting has been so poor this session."

Governor, I have been there as a steadfast advocate and witness.  The reason people are outraged and protesting is that they have been paying attention, very close attention.  Sustained engagement in and educational outreach on the legislative process leading up this bill's passage has been a civics lesson for many.  Please, do not blame the media for this kerfuffle.

"I don't think the objective of an abortion clinic is to try to talk women out of having the procedure. That obviously would not be positive for their bottom line."

Governor, I encourage you to talk to a physician who has performed an abortion, because, based upon your comment, it would seem that you have not.  If you had, you would soon realize that "the bottom line" is not what motivates these physicians in practice.  To suggest otherwise would be an insult to their ethics and a gross mischaracterization.  Please, do not blame the physicians for this kerfuffle.

"Despite the rhetoric of opponents, this was about empowering women with more medical and legal information that previously they were not required to get in order to give informed consent."

Governor, Merriam-Webster has three definitions for "empower" - "to give official authority or legal power to; [to] enable; to promote the self-actualization or influence of."  It defies basic comprehension of this word to deduce that a mandate represents empowerment.  In fact, this legislation thwarts any attempt at empowerment as it will interfere with a woman's autonomous choice and assumes that her doctor would provide her insufficient information to make that choice.  The last time Virginia ever passed a mandated medical procedure was the forced sterilization of the mentally ill, a scenario in which there is no presence of empowerment.  Please, do not blame a misunderstanding of the word "empower" for this kerfuffle.

"Informed consent is required for every invasive medical procedure, from getting your ears pierced to having an abortion."

Governor, even in an illustrative context, an abortion should not be placed on the same plane of medical procedures as an ear piercing.  Ears are pierced at kiosks in the mall.  Invasive medical procedures are performed by specially trained medical personnel in medical settings.  Your relation of an ear piercing to an abortion reveals either your complete insensitivity to this issue, or your complete ignorance.  Please do not blame a citizenry's misunderstanding of this issue for this kerfuffle.

This is our Governor.  This is his perspective.  

Dear Reader, that is exactly what the "kerfuffle" is all about.

What I Learned in Virginia Today

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February 28, 2012

Early this morning, I learned that Governor McDonnell had ordered a SWAT Team to cover a Candlelight Vigil I attended the night before at the Governor's Mansion.  Riot police were hiding in the bushes, while my two small children and I sang, "This Little Light of Mine."

In the mid-morning, I learned that compassion and logic do not have to be mutually exclusive, when a Virginia Senate Finance Committee quashed a House bill that would have cut funding to low-income women seeking abortions when a physician had certified a gross abnormality and malformity in their pregnancy.

In the afternoon, however, I learned that, as a woman, I do not have the capacity to make an informed decision without my physician performing what is deemed to be an unnecessary medical procedure.  

I learned that 21 Virginia Senators are better equipped and trained to prescribe medical procedures than treating physicians.  I also learned that 21 Virginia Senators can mandate a medical procedure on a woman even when the medical community deems the procedure medically unnecessary.

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