July 18, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
BREAKING: Senate confirms first out gay male to federal bench

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

The U.S. Senate made history on Monday by confirming for the first time ever an openly gay male to serve as a federal judge.

By a vote of 80-13, the Senate confirmed J. Paul Oetken, whom President Obama nominated in January to sit on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. A simple majority was required to confirm Oetken.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, praised the Senate for what he said was a “historic vote” in confirming an openly gay male to the federal bench.

“Confirmation of Paul Oetken serves as a role model for all LGBT people interested in serving on the judiciary and shows LGBT youth that hard work pays off,” Solmonese said.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, also commended the Senate for confirming Obama’s nomination in a statement, although he made no mention of the nominee’s sexual orientation.

“The president welcomes the confirmation of Mr. Oetken and is confident that he will serve the American people with distinction from the district court bench,” Inouye said.

Denis Dison, spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said the LGBT community still has “a lot of ‘firsts’ to achieve” and the Oetken confirmation is “great news.” The Victory Fund has been advocating for LGBT appointments in the Obama administration through its Presidential Appointments Project.

“It wasn’t even two decades ago that openly LGBT people had a hard time even being considered for a presidential appointment, and some who got nominated faced fierce opposition in the Senate,” Dison said. “Today, more than 200 LGBT Americans have been appointed by President Obama, and more than 25 of those were nominated for Senate-confirmable positions.”

No Democrat voted against the Oetken nomination. The Republican votes against the nomination were Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jerry Moran (R-Ky.) James Risch (R-Idaho), Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Senators who didn’t vote on the nomination were Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and David Vitter (R-La.).

Oetken is first openly gay male to be confirmed to the federal bench, but not the first openly LGBT person. U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts, an out lesbian who currently sits on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, is considered the first openly LGBT person to sit on a federal court. She was appointed during the Clinton Administration.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who ruled against California’s ban on same-sex marriage Proposition 8 last year, has also come out as gay. However, he only told reporters about his sexual orientation after he retired from the bench.

With only two openly gay people confirmed by the Senate to the federal bench, Solmonese said greater representation of LGBT people is still needed on the judiciary.

“The federal bench is greatly lacking LGBT diversity and with thousands of qualified LGBT attorneys in the [United States], there is no reason why the federal bench should not better reflect the composition of our country,” Solmonese said.

The Senate confirmed Oetken to the position after 30 minutes of debate in which senators from both sides of the aisle praised Oetken and encouraged senators to vote for his nomination.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who recommended the nomination to Obama, praised Oetken on the Senate floor for his excellence in legal work and the moderation of his views, but also made special note of his sexual orientation.

“As the first openly gay man to be confirmed as a federal judge and to serve on the federal bench, he will be a symbol of how much we have achieved as a country in just the last few decades,” Schumer said. “And importantly, he will give hope to many talented young lawyers who, until now, thought their paths might be limited because of their sexual orientation. When Paul becomes Judge Oetken, he will be living proof to all those young lawyers that it really does get better.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which approved Oetken unanimously by voice vote in April, also extolled how the confirmation of Oetken and said people should be proud of President Obama “for taking this critical step to break down another barrier and increase diversity in the federal judiciary.”

“All of us in the Senate can also be proud that Mr. Oetken was reported with the support of every member of the Judiciary Committee — Democratic and Republican — and will be confirmed by what I believe will be an overwhelming vote in the Senate,” Leahy said. “It is a sign that, as a nation, we have taken a new and welcome step on the path of ensuring that our Federal judiciary better reflects all Americans.”

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking Republican of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also spoke favorably of Oetken on the Senate floor — calling the nominee “qualified” and noting the nominee hails from his home state of Iowa — while encouraging other senators to vote for the nomination. However, Grassley didn’t mention Oetken’s sexual orientation on the floor of the Senate.

“I support this nomination and congratulate him on his professional accomplishments,” Grassley said.

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 isn’t the only openly gay judicial nominee that the Senate has advanced closer to a position on the federal bench. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved by a vote of 14-4 the nomination of Alison Nathan, an out lesbian whom Obama also selected to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Another openly gay judicial nominee, Edward DuMont, has been nominated for a position on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to take up his nomination.

UPDATE: In a statement provided to the Washington Blade, Hagan, one of the senators who didn’t vote on the Oetken nomination, praised the Senate confirmation of the appointee.

“I applaud the overwhelming bipartisan support for the nomination of Paul Oetken to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York,” Hagan said. “A great day for the LGBT community and the nation.”

Sadie Weiner, a Hagan spokesperson, said the North Carolina Democrat didn’t vote on the Oetken nomination because the senator was delayed while traveling by aircraft.

“On Monday, Senator Hagan was in Charlotte to speak to a camp for high-school aged young women interested in pursuing studies and careers in high technology industries,” Weiner said. “Her scheduled flight from Charlotte back to Washington was delayed several times causing her to miss the Senate vote on Judge Oetken’s nomination.”

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

1 Comment
  • Peter the saint

    A gay MAN. Uh huh, got it– loud and clear… and how many DECADES until the federal judiciary is 10-20% LGBT? Riiiiiight, I thought so… nice try Dems, prop up the token gays for the 2012 election, right??! riiiight…

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