RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Attorney General Mark Herring's announcement Thursday that he'll join a fight to undo the state's ban on gay marriage set the stage for a showdown with Republican legislators.
The GOP lawmakers reacted angrily to Herring's decision, saying the attorney general abandoned his role as the chief defender of the state's laws.
"Less than two weeks ago, Mark Herring took an oath and swore to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of Virginia," House Speaker William J. Howell said in a statement. "I am very concerned about his announcement today and the dangerous precedent it sets with regard to the rule of law.'"
Herring's move wasn't entirely unexpected. Del. Todd Gilbert, R- Shenandoah, said Herring's remarks on the campaign trail last year prompted Gilbert to propose legislation that would give lawmakers the ability to intervene in lawsuits on behalf the state.
"Since he is choosing to change the rules as we go certainly the General Assembly has the right to alter the process by which we defend our laws when the attorney general chooses not to defend them." Gilbert said.
He added that Herring's announcement may speed up action on the bill, which is before a committee.
Herring dismissed the legislation as unnecessary.
"Virginia has one attorney general. I think it's going to stay that way," he said at a news conference.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers praised Herring and said there was clear precedent for an attorney general not to defend a law he thinks is unconstitutional.
"The attorney general has it right," said House Minority Leader David Toscano.
Herring's move may also cast a contentious social issue back to the forefront of Virginia politics, something newly elected Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has appeared eager to avoid while instead focusing on economic development issues.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, McAuliffe reiterated his strong support for gay rights, but scoffed at recent attempts by Democratic lawmakers to push a proposed constitutional amendment legalizing gay marriage through the General Assembly.
"I mean, c'mon, it's not going to pass the House of Delegates," said McAullife, referencing the firm control Republicans have of the House.
The governor's spokesman said Thursday that McAuliffe supports Herring's "efforts to ensure that all Virginians are treated equally under the law."
Associated Press writer Steve Szkotak contributed to this report.