Leonard v. Commonwealth (P)

The petitioner, a federal inmate, applied in the circuit court to change part of her name from Brian Allen to Bree Anne. She has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and is transitioning from a male to female identity. The circuit court abused its discretion in denying her petition.

The petitioner’s application contained the information required by Code § 8.01-217(B) and articulated legitimate, non-frivolous reasons supporting the requested name change, supported by medical records. Had the circuit court held a hearing to receive and consider evidence, as required by subsection (D) as presently worded, it may have found a variety of reasons to ultimately deny the application. But the court denied the application prior to that stage, where the statute strictly limits review to assessing the application’s procedural sufficiency. Because the application in this case set forth good cause to be accepted for merits consideration, the circuit court abused its discretion in denying the application for lack of good cause.

The circuit court also abused its discretion by deviating from the statutory process for assessing a name-change application. The court referred the application to the Commonwealth’s Attorney for a response before denying the application for lack of good cause without a hearing four days after the response was received. Under Code § 8.01-217(D), a court must refer an application to the Commonwealth’s Attorney after finding that good cause exists to consider it on the merits; it cannot do so prior to making that initial determination. After finding that good cause exists, the court must make the referral and then hold a hearing. Only after the hearing may the court exercise its substantial discretion in deciding on the merits whether to grant the name change.

Reversed and remanded.

Leonard v. Commonwealth (P), No. 170965, Dec. 13, 2018. SCV (Mims) from Prince George (Sharrett).

Categories: Opinions, Published, Supreme Court of Virginia

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