One of the niche areas of my law practice is assisting transgender clients in securing amendments to their birth certificates once they have completed the sex reassignment process. Virginia has no set form of petition for the process although statutory authority for such amendments and the Virginia Code section is cited in the petitions and court orders I prepare. I almost never get involved in securing court orders for name changes since typically the process is so easy that clients usually handle that process themselves, especially since a standard application form is available on the Virginia Judiciary web page in a fill in the blank PDF format. Unless, apparently one is in Louisia County before judge, Timothy Sanner, who seemingly makes up his own rules that differ from the requirements of the Virginia Code. Sadly, many judges in Virginia appear to feel that they can do whatever they want when it comes to LGBT clients and from my experience, the Judicial Review Commission never disciplines judges who abuse LGBT clients. I was interviewed by GayRVA which has an article on the situation. Here are highlights from that article:
A trans-man from Louisa County, Virginia, has been denied a name change by a Circuit Judge who, contrary to current Virginia law, said medical documentation was required for legal name changes.
Jacob Haley went to the Louisa County Courthouse in February of this year. When he handed the clerk the forms to change his legal name from his female birth name to his male name, the clerk, according to Haley, said ”more than likely (you’re) going to need a hearing, the judge is going to want to know the reasoning.”
Haley realized this might happen and asked if he would need to bring anything with him when he returned to court. He was told to bring “anything that would help explain the name change.”
Haley currently works two jobs and receives health care form one of his employers. But his health care does not cover transgender-related services, including hormone treatment or therapy. Unable to afford treatment, Haley has been working with local groups and has been raising funds independently. But it has not been easy. “It’s a struggle,” said Haley. “I’ve been trying to get money together since 2011 when I came out.”
The judge, Hon. Timothy Sanner, told Haley that in previous name-changing cases involving transgender individuals, a note from a doctor or some medical record was brought to help prove the need for a name change. According to Haley, Judge Sanner said “The prior case had been seen by a therapist for years, had been through hormone therapy, and had a letter and things to back their story up.”
Sanner then told Haley he would need to see paperwork from a medical professional before approving the name change. ”[The judge said] the courts would like to see something of that nature,” Haley said. ”He didn’t say anything about the law.”
Medical documentation is required for changing genders on a birth certificate, and similarly for Virginia state ID’s like driver’s licenses. Hamar said the judge could have confused the two, but denying a simple name change because there is no doctor’s note is not in line with the law. “The forms are standardized, you print them out and pay your money, and you may or may not have to appear. You usually don’t even have to show,” according to Hamar.
Other transgender people in Virginia told GayRVA that they received their legal name changes in similarly simple circumstances. In an email, Ryan O’Donnell changed his name in 2010. “I did it through the mail, so I didn’t have to go before a judge, I just had to get the form notarized and send it to the county clerk’s office. I got the form back in a couple of weeks with no hassle… I have plenty of trans friends in Virginia who changed their names with little to no hassle.”
Haley has 60 days to go back before the judge with a medical letter. He’s not sure why the judge singled him out for this case, especially after hearing about the ease so many other trans individuals had with the name change process. ”It blows my mind that people can have their name changed to whatever they want,” said Haley, “but when it comes to someone needing their name changed for their mental health, they get roadblocked.”
When one reads the instructions to the application form for seeking a name change, when it comes to supporting documentation, the instructions state "None." The only issues covered in the application are assurance that the name change is not being done for fraudulent purposes or to hide from creditors or probation officers. Apparently none of this means anything to Judge Sanner who makes up his own rules - especially for LGBT petitioners. Welcome to Virginia which has a well deserved anti-gay reputation.