Key Virginia Legislator Says Sodomy Law Should Disqualify Gay People from Being Judges; Lambda Legal Says Comments Again Show How Widely Sodomy Laws Are Used To Discriminate

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January 15, 2003

(New York, Wednesday, January 15, 2003) - A Virginia State Legislator who oversees a committee responsible for reappointing judges across the state says he opposes reappointing a local judge to a second term if she is a lesbian and is violating the state's sodomy law, in what Lambda Legal today called "another deeply disturbing example" of how sodomy laws are used to discriminate against gay people. A legislative committee will decide whether to reappoint the judge on Friday, just one day after Lambda Legal files its brief -- and an array of the nation’s most respected civil rights organizations, conservative groups and health associations file supportive briefs -- urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Texas's sodomy law, in a case that also could effectively strike down the Virginia law and 11 others.

"There is certain homosexual conduct that is in violation of the law," said Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican member of Virginia’s House of Delegates and chairman of the legislature’s House Courts of Justice Committee. “It certainly raises some questions about the qualifications to serve as a judge.” Virginia's sodomy law criminalizes oral and anal sex between straight and gay couples -- including private, consensual intimacy between adults -- but is almost exclusively used to discriminate against lesbians and gay men. McDonnell was referring to Newport News, Virginia, Circuit Judge Verbena Askew, whose reappointment is set for a hearing Friday.

"This is yet another deeply disturbing example of how these laws are used to justify discrimination against gay people," said Ruth Harlow, Legal Director at Lambda Legal and the lead attorney on the Supreme Court case challenging the Texas law. "These laws are widely used to deny gay people jobs, custody of their children and the fair and equal treatment we’re all guaranteed in this country.”

Askew is one of 60 judges statewide up for reappointment this year, but she is the only one facing a challenge in the legislature. The legislature appoints judges to eight-year terms, and reappointments are rarely challenged. Askew is the first female African-American circuit judge in Virginia history. In November, a legislative committee canceled her formal interview, which starts the reappointment process. Since then, members of the committee have raised a wide range of questions about whether Askew is fit to be reappointed, including whether she treats male defendants too harshly, whether she is “rude” to people in her courtroom, why the city settled a woman’s sexual harassment complaint against her a couple of years ago, and now, with McDonnell’s comments Tuesday, whether she is in violation of the state’s sodomy law. A number of witnesses, as well as Askew herself, are expected to testify Friday before the legislative committee votes on her reappointment. Askew has declined to comment publicly, citing ethical rules that prohibit judges from speaking out about specific cases or their reappointments.

"Judge Askew should be assessed just like the other 59 judges up for reappointment this year. If there are questions about her professional conduct, those should be investigated and addressed like they would be with any other judge," Harlow said. "Anti-gay discrimination has no place in the process of deciding who is fit to be a judge, and using Virginia’s sodomy law as a smokescreen doesn’t make that discrimination any more acceptable.”

According to Harlow, several of the briefs being filed tomorrow in Lambda Legal's case challenging the Texas sodomy law will highlight the ways sodomy laws are used against gay people. Recent high-profile cases specifically relying at least in part on such laws include: a Mississippi father who was denied custody of his own child; a Georgia woman who was rejected for government employment; a lesbian minister in Puerto Rico who was told not to testify at a legislative hearing; two lesbian foster mothers in Texas whose foster child was taken from their home; and a North Carolina father whose two sons were taken away from him.

"Some of the most diverse and respected voices in this country are lining up behind us to tell the Supreme Court that these laws are bad for America," Harlow said. "Conservative groups are coming forward to say that the government has no business in people’s bedrooms. Mainstream civil rights organizations are speaking out about the inequalities and blatant discrimination these laws create. And our nations’ leading health advocates are unequivocally saying that these laws don’t serve any public interest.”

In the Supreme Court case against the Texas law, Lambda Legal represents John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who were arrested in Lawrence's Houston home and jailed overnight after officers responding to a false report found the men engaged in private, consensual sex. Once convicted, they were forced to pay fines, are now considered sex offenders in several states and are disqualified from working in dozens of professions. In early December, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear arguments on whether the Texas law violates the federal Constitution's guarantee that laws must protect and apply to people equally, as well as whether it violates the right to privacy. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia’s law banning consensual sodomy did not violate privacy rights. In bringing the Texas case, Lambda Legal asked the justices to reconsider that ruling, which has been used against lesbians and gay men for almost two decades. Eric Ferrero, 212/809-8585 ext. 227; 888/987-1984 (pager)



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