April 7, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Senate panel advances gay judicial nominee

J. Paul Oetken (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A Senate committee unanimously approved on Thursday by voice vote the nomination of a New York attorney who could become the first openly gay man to sit on the federal bench.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced to the floor following no discussion the nomination of J. Paul Oetken, whom President Obama tapped in January to become a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York.

Now that the panel has approved the Oetken nomination, it will head to the Senate floor, where support from 60 senators is needed for his confirmation. Senate Majority Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office didn’t respond on a short notice to request on a comment on when the nomination would see a floor vote.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said the support that Oetken enjoyed in committee shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“Unanimous approval in the committee is unsurprising given that Paul is such a highly qualified nominee.” Cole-Schwartz said. “We look forward to a successful floor vote, which will make him the first openly gay man to serve on an Article III federal court.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who recommended the Oetken nomination, praised the committee for approving his nomination as well as his recommended nomination of Paul Engelmeyer, whom Obama also appointed for a position on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“With today’s voice vote in the Judiciary Committee, J. Paul Oetken and Paul Engelmayer now face virtually certain confirmation on the Senate floor,” Schumer said. “Both Mr. Oetken and Mr. Engelmayer have the sterling credentials and distinguished record of service to make fine judges on the Southern District Bench, and I look forward to voting to confirm them as soon as possible.”

Oetken has practiced law at Debevoise and Plimpton, and since 2004, served as associate general counsel at Cablevision. From 1999 to 2001, Oetken was associate counsel to President Clinton and specialized in First Amendment issues, presidential appointments, ethics, civil rights, and legal policy.

Additionally, Oetken served in various capacities as an LGBT advocate. The nominee has been involved with Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union. Oetken also co-authored a U.S. Supreme Court friend-of-the-court brief in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down sodomy laws throughout the country.

Oetken is one of two pending out male nominees before the Senate. Edmund Dumont was nominated by Obama also in January to serve as an appellate judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Whichever nominee first receives the 60 votes needed for confirmation would be the first openly gay male to sit on the federal bench.

Last week, Obama nominated out lesbian Alison Nathan for another seat as a district judge for the Southern District of New York. She currently serves as special counsel to the solicitor general in the Office of the Attorney General of the State of New York.

While Oetken could become the first openly gay male to sit on the federal bench, he wouldn’t be the first openly LGBT person to serve as a federal judge. In 1994, President Clinton nominated Deborah Batts, an out lesbian, to serve as federal judge for the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that retired U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker — who last year determined that California’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional — came out as gay to reporters and said he’s been in a long-term relationship with a physician for 10 years. However, Walker retired in February and wasn’t openly gay during his tenure on the bench.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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