March 4, 2013 | by Chris Johnson
Senate confirms first openly gay Asian-American to federal bench
Pamela Ki Mai Chen, federal judge nominee, lesbian, attorney, New York, Senate Judicial Committee

Judge Pamela Chen was confirmed to the bench on Monday by a voice vote in the Senate. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Senate on Monday evening made history with little difficulty when it confirmed the first openly gay Asian-American for a seat on the federal bench.

By a voice vote, the Senate confirmed Pamela Ki Mai Chen, a lesbian, for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. President Obama first nominated her a judgeship in August and renamed her along with others at the start of the 113th Congress.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, who recommended the nomination to Obama, praised the Senate for confirming Chen in a statement and said her background will serve her well on the federal bench.

“Ms. Chen’s wealth of experience and devotion to public service make it clear that she will be an excellent judge,” Schumer said. “Ms. Chen has proven time and again that she is a leader and a pioneer in the legal field. I have every confidence that she will serve her jurisdiction well.”

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, echoed that sentiment over the confirmation of Obama’s judicial nominee.

“The President welcomes the confirmation of Pamela Ki Mai Chen,” Inouye said. “She will serve the American people well from the Eastern District of New York bench.”

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, also commended the Senate for taking action to add LGBT representation to the federal bench.

“We congratulate Judge Chen on a much deserved achievement and thank the White House and Senate for their continued commitment to nominating and confirming well-qualified, diverse individuals,” Cole-Schwartz said.

A Chinese-American, Chen’s parents were both born in China, but met after they moved to the United States. Before her confirmation, she worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York for 14 years and focused, among other areas, on combatting human trafficking.

During her confirmation hearing in September, Chen pledged fairness on the bench, saying politics “will play no role in my decision making were I fortunate enough to be confirmed.”

“The assurances I can give you are based on my career as a public servant and working for the Department of Justice,” she said at the time. “No one accused me of ever making a decision based on any kind of political ideology, and I think my record speaks for itself over the last 20 years.”

Prior to her confirmation, Chen was a trial attorney in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Justice Department. She began her legal career in D.C., at the criminal defense firm of Asbill, Junkin, Myers & Buffone and at the law firm of Arnold & Porter after receiving her law degree in 1986 from the Georgetown University. Chen received a rating of “unanimously qualified” from the American Bar Association.

Chen’s confirmation means four additional openly gay judicial nominations remain pending before the Senate. Two of these nominations — Michael McShane, nominated as U.S. District Judge for the District of Oregon; and Nitza Quinones Alejandro, nominated as U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania — face a committee vote during an upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Thursday.

Other openly gay judicial nominees on which the Senate has yet to take action include William Thomas, who was nominated as U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Florida. Obama also nominated Todd Hughes to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Court. If confirmed, he’d be the first openly gay person to sit on a federal appeals court.

Chen’s confirmation means a total of four openly gay nominees have been confirmed to the federal bench under the Obama administration. The three others, who were confirmed during the 112th Congress, are Alison Nathan, who was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, J. Paul Oetken, who was confirmed to the same court; and Michael Fitzgerald, who was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

NOTE: This article has updated to include a comment from Shin Inouye.

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

6 Comments
  • Hi Gwen, This our dear friend-of-the-family, who lives in N.Y. near where Matt and Laura lived. She will make a wonderful Judge. Cheers, C

  • I am both thrilled and overwhelmed with joy with this major step forward for all Asian Americans. I am part Lithuanian and part Indonesian and completely homosexual. We have struglled with Bin Laden's philosophy which has been homophobic, sexist and dictatorial. I am proud of my status and the intelligence that Ki Mai Chen will contribute to all people of her gender, persuasion and heritage.

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