LEESBURG, Va. — Attorney General Mark Herring’s refusal to defend Virginia’s ban on gay marriage was his signature act during his four-year term. Now it’s the key point of contention in his re-election campaign against Republican challenger John Adams.
At a debate Friday in Leesburg, Adams said it was dereliction of duty when Herring switched the state’s legal position in a lawsuit challenging the ban once he took office in 2014. A federal judge who struck down Virginia’s ban cited Herring’s switch as a compelling factor in her analysis.
“That is an unbelievable position for a lawyer to take,” Adams said. “He got on the other side and sued his own client.”
Adams attributed Herring’s decision to a political calculation, noting that Herring actually voted for the gay marriage ban a few years earlier when he was a state senator.
Herring, who received national attention when he announced his decision to oppose the gay-marriage ban in court, said his position was ultimately vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down gay-marriage bans as unconstitutional.
Herring said he considered the fact that Virginia was on the wrong side of history in the civil rights era when the state argued to keep segregated schools, and didn’t want to make the same mistake.
“It was the right thing to do,” Herring said.
Adams also criticized Herring as beholden to labor unions and weak on defending Virginia’s “right-to-work” law, which protects workers from being required to pay dues to the unions that represent them. He also cited a decision by the Republican-controlled Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to review Herring’s office after reports that money collected in asset forfeiture cases provided pay raises to his staffers.
Herring said the commission’s actions are simply “election season shenanigans.”
Herring, in his opening statement, said Adams would not protect abortion rights and would oppose gun safety measures. He said Adams worked as a lawyer in private practice to weaken rules protecting coverage for contraception under the Affordable Care Act.
“John is fixated on conservative social issues,” Herring said.
Adams countered that his personal beliefs are irrelevant, and that he would simply uphold the law. On the contraceptives issue, he said he simply wrote briefs in support of groups like Little Sisters of the Poor who don’t want to pay for contraceptive coverage that violates their religious convictions. He said his argument was vindicated by the Supreme Court.
“I am running to get politics out of the attorney general’s office,” he said. “I’m not running to limit anybody’s rights.”
Herring, a former state senator from Loudoun County, is seeking a second term as attorney general. Adams, a former federal prosecutor and law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is making his first run for public office.
Friday’s debate was sponsored by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce.