McLEAN, Va. — The judge deciding what could become a landmark marriage equality 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.
Wright Allen, 53, took the bench in October 2011 following a unanimous Senate confirmation, becoming the first black woman to serve on the federal bench in Virginia. She graduated from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in 1982 and received her law degree from North Carolina Central University School of Law in 1985. She then went on to serve as a judge advocate officer in the Navy before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in Norfolk in 1990.
She served there for 15 years, but then became a federal public defender in Norfolk in 2005.
Her service as both a prosecutor and public defender is the most unusual part of her resume. Wright Allen’s former boss, Michael Nachmanoff, the chief federal public defender in the Eastern District of Virginia, said it is unusual but not unprecedented for an assistant U.S. attorney to make that transition. He said Wright Allen did it well.
“It’s a reflection that she has a deep-seated conviction to public service,” Nachmanoff said, and an ability to “do good work in a very different way.”
She also earned praise from her colleagues in law enforcement. FBI chief of staff Chuck Rosenberg, who served alongside Wright Allen as a prosecutor in Norfolk in the 1990s, called Wright Allen “about the nicest person you could meet” and said she was thoughtful and open-minded.
“She brings a lot of experience from a lot of different places to a very important job,” Rosenberg said.
Nachmanoff and Rosenberg agreed that trying to pigeonhole her judicial philosophy would be a losing proposition.
“Her career path reflects that it would be a mistake to make assumptions about the perspective she brings,” Nachmanoff said.
Wright Allen is married to Delroy Allen, a former pro soccer goalie in the old North American Soccer League. They have two sons, Yanni and Nyle.
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