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Leonard v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia

December 13, 2018





         In this appeal, we consider whether the circuit court abused its discretion in denying an application for a name change filed under Code § 8.01-217.


         Brian Allen Leonard filed an application in the Circuit Court of Prince George County to change her name to Bree Anna Leonard. Leonard, an inmate at Federal Corrections Complex Petersburg, has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and is transitioning from a male to female identity. Medical records from the Federal Bureau of Prisons detail her diagnosis and treatments through the time of filing.

         In a letter attached to her application, Leonard averred that she has taken "gender confirming hormones" for two years and "fully present[s] as female." She stated that she intended "to further [her] transition by getting Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS) and one of the requirements set forth by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health . . . is living 12 months in a gender role that is congruent with one's gender identity before being considered for GRS." As such, "legally changing [her] name is a requirement for . . . taking the next step in [her] transition." Moreover, she asserted that a name change "will have tremendous psychological benefits" for her because, as a person suffering from gender dysphoria, "being called by [her] birth name is harmful and distressing." She further stated that receiving a name change would not interfere with her incarceration or any other conditions of her sentences.

         Leonard is presently serving a federal sentence of seventeen years and six months for possession of child pornography. Her incarceration in a federal facility located in Virginia is her only tie to the Commonwealth. Leonard will be in the Commonwealth for less than three years. Upon completing her federal sentence in 2020, she will be transferred to a Missouri state correctional facility to finish serving sentences for three Missouri convictions of statutory sodomy.

         Upon receipt of the application, the circuit court appears to have delivered a copy to the Prince George County Commonwealth's Attorney's office. The Commonwealth thereafter filed a response opposing Leonard's application. In it, the Commonwealth argued that Missouri had a greater interest than Virginia in considering the name change and that granting the requested change would frustrate the legitimate law-enforcement purposes of identifying and tracking Leonard during her transition to Missouri and after her release, as well as ensuring her registration as a sex offender.

         The circuit court denied Leonard's application by preprinted form order four days after receiving the Commonwealth's response. It did not schedule a hearing, but ruled based solely on the application, its attachments, and the Commonwealth's response. The circuit court marked the boxes on the form order indicating that Leonard is incarcerated, is a person required to register as a sex offender, and that "good cause does not exist for consideration of the application. Therefore, the application for change of name is denied and this cause is dismissed." Left blank were the sections for ordering the clerk to deliver a copy of the order and application to the Commonwealth's Attorney and for setting a hearing. Leonard noted an appeal from the denial of her application, which we awarded.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Although we review a court's denial of an application for a name change for abuse of discretion, Jordan v. Commonwealth, 295 Va. 70, 74 (2018), determining the procedures mandated by the Code of Virginia that a court must follow in considering a name-change application is a question of statutory interpretation subject to de novo review, Boasso Am. Corp. v. Zoning Adm'r of Chesapeake, 293 Va. 203, 206 (2017). "In construing a statute, '[o]ur central focus is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the General Assembly, '" determining that intent from the words used in the statute. Id. at 207 (quoting Miller v. Highland Cty., 274 Va. 355, 364 (2007)). We "presume that the General Assembly chose, with care, the words that appear in a statute, and must apply the statute in a manner faithful to that choice." Johnson v. Commonwealth, 292 Va. 738, 742 (2016).

         Code § 8.01-217 governs applications for name changes. For most citizens, the statute speaks in fairly permissive terms, stating that "the court, shall . . . order a change of name" unless the evidence reveals that name change "is sought for a fraudulent purpose or would otherwise infringe upon the rights of others" or is not in the best interests of a minor, if a minor is the subject of the application. Code § 8.01-217(C); see Jordan, 295 Va. at 74. Inmates seeking name changes, however, must satisfy a greater burden than ordinary citizens.

         In 2014, the General Assembly passed amendments to Code § 8.01-217 creating a presumption against name changes for probationers, persons required to register on the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry, and inmates. The statute sets forth a strict procedure for courts considering applications from those individuals. See Code § 8.01-217(D). This procedure is mandatory, as the legislature made clear in subsection (E): "The provisions of subsection (D) are jurisdictional and any order granting a change of name pursuant to subsection (D) that fails to comply with any provision of subsection (D) is void ab initio." Code § 8.01-217(E).

         Code § 8.01-217(D) first requires the court to determine whether "good cause exists for consideration of [the] application." Subsection (D) limits the court's consideration in this good-cause analysis to only "the reasons alleged in the application for the requested change of name." This step is akin to a court's review of a complaint on demurrer: the court looks to the form of the application and assesses its sufficiency assuming that all material facts, implied facts, and reasonable inferences from those facts that are properly alleged in the application are true. Cf. Assurance Data, Inc. v. Malyevac, 286 Va. 137, 143 (2013). If the application includes the required information set forth in Code ยง 8.01-217(B) and alleges legitimate, nonfrivolous ...

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