Judge in Gay Marriage Case Difficult to Pigeonhole
The judge deciding what could become a landmark gay marriage case in Virginia defies easy characterization: She was a prosecutor, but also a public defender. She was appointed by President Barack Obama, and she also served in the military as a Navy lawyer.
U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen, who has been on the bench for less than three years, is overseeing the highest-profile case of her short judicial career. If she throws out Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, the state would be the first in the South to allow gay marriage, though attorneys on both sides say her ruling will be appealed.
Liberals who want the state’s ban overturned may be encouraged by her service as a public defender and the fact that she is an Obama appointee, while conservatives may be heartened by her experience as a no-nonsense federal prosecutor.
"It’s very hard to have a sense of her on this kind of issue," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who closely watches federal courts in Virginia.
He said it’s difficult to read anything into Wright Allen’s judicial philosophy based on her record because she has not had any cases that come close to matching this one, and she rarely deals with cases so purely focused on constitutional interpretation.
Her docket has been filled with cases typical for her position - drugs, child pornography and fraud. She handed down prison sentences ranging from two to five years for members of the IMAGiNE online piracy group, which attracted some attention for its efforts to post pirated movies online while they were still in theaters.
At Tuesday’s same-sex marriage hearing, Wright Allen listened intently as opponents of the ban argued it was just like segregation and the Jim Crow-era prohibition against interracial marriage. Supporters maintained there was no fundamental right to gay marriage and the ban exists as part of the state’s interest in responsible procreation.
Wright Allen didn’t ask the attorneys any questions, promising only to rule soon.
Two weeks before the hearing, Virginia’s new Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring announced that his office would not defend the state against lawsuits challenging the ban. Wright Allen said in court documents she considered not even hearing verbal arguments because of the "compelling" filing by the attorney general’s office.