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Transgender Prisoner Entitled to Hearing on Name Change Application

August 4, 2020

Brian Allen Leonard, an inmate at the federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia, filed a name change application in the Circuit Court of Prince George County to change her name to Bree Anna Leonard.  According to the application, Leonard was transitioning from a male to female identity.  A requirement prior to undergoing gender reassignment surgery is to live 12 months in the gender role of the gender to which one is transitioning.  As such, Leonard’s application asserted that legally changing her name was a requirement for taking the next step in her transition.

After receiving the application, the Court requested that the Prince George County Commonwealth’s attorney provide a response with its position with respect to the request.  Four days after the Commonwealth filed a response opposing the application, the court denied the application without a hearing.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed.  It noted that although courts have significant discretion to decide the merits of a name change petition, they are bound to follow the procedure set forth in Va. Code § 8.01-217(D).  That procedure requires the court to make an initial determination as to whether the application sets forth good cause for the name change request.  In the event good cause does exist, then the court is required to hold a hearing with respect to the request.  Additionally, after a finding of good cause, the court must refer the application to the Commonwealth’s attorney.  In this case, the Supreme Court held that the Circuit Court abused its discretion by failing to find that the application provided good cause for the request.  Accordingly, it remanded the case so a hearing could be conducted to determine if the application should be granted.