More than eight months after President Obama first made the nomination, the process for confirming the first openly gay black male to sit on the federal bench appears to have stalled amid finger pointing in the Senate over the reason why.
The confirmation of William Thomas, who was named for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, hasn’t yet passed the first step in the process, which is having the home senators in his state — Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — return the “blue slips” for the nomination.
In effect, these senators are placing a hold on the nomination, even though both lawmakers had recommended Thomas after he made it through Florida’s Federal Judicial Nominating Commission, which makes recommendations to the state’s senators.
Meanwhile, the Thomas nomination has become entangled in a dispute between the Congressional Black Caucus and Rubio over the hold he’s placed on Thomas as well as Brian Davis, another black judicial nominee who was nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for Middle District of Florida.
During a Congressional Black Caucus news conference on Wednesday, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) fumed over Rubio’s decision to hold up the Thomas nomination, according to The Huffington Post.
“I know this much: William Thomas was here before Marco Rubio’s family came here,” Hastings said. “It would seem to me that Marco Rubio could pick up the telephone and call me and ask me a little bit more about William Thomas if he needs to know something more about him.”
Obama first nominated Thomas for the seat in November and renominated him to the bench at the start of the 113th Congress as part of a group of 33 nominations. But Thomas hasn’t been yet confirmed, even though three other gay nominees — Pamela Ki Mai Chen, Michael McShane and Nitza Quiñones Alejandro — have since that time received Senate approval.
Rubio’s office didn’t immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment. But according to the Tampa Bay Times, Rubio has concerns about Thomas’s involvement in a controversial case in which a man was given a sentence of just 364 days in jail for the hit-and-run death of a cyclist.
As for why Nelson continues to withhold the blue slips for the nomination, the reasoning seems to be different. Ryan Brown, a Nelson spokesperson pointed to the Senate Judiciary Committee when asked why the Florida senator hasn’t yet returned the blue slips for the nominee.
“Sen. Nelson submitted Judge William Thomas’s name to the president,” Brown said. “And we are now waiting on the results of a background investigation being done by the Judiciary Committee.”
It’s up to the senator in each state to determine when it’s appropriate to submit a blue slip. Brown added it’s customary for Nelson to wait until the background investigation before he submits his blue slips.
Jessica Brady, a Senate Judiciary Committee spokesperson, said she couldn’t provide much information about the background investigation, but added Nelson “has been advised” about the nominations of both Thomas and Davis.
“A background review occurs for all nominees by majority and minority staff,” Brady said. “This is a separate process than the blue slip process, which is the responsibility of home state senators. Sen. Nelson has been briefed by Judiciary Committee staff about both nominations. The background review is confidential, and so I cannot provide any guidance on that.”
Thomas has experience both as a defense attorney and as a judge. He’s served as a Circuit Judge in Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit since 2005, where he has presided over both civil and criminal matters. Previously, he was an assistant federal public defender in the Southern District of Florida and represented indigent clients in federal criminal cases.
The Thomas nomination was facilitated through the Presidential Appointment Project, an initiative led by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund to help qualified LGBT individuals receive appointments in the federal government.
Denis Dison, a spokesperson for the Victory Fund, said the time has come for the Senate to move forward with the Thomas nomination.
“Judge Thomas was nominated by the president, through a process endorsed by Florida’s senators, because he is well-qualified,” Dison said. “He deserves a confirmation hearing.”
The White House didn’t respond to a request to comment on the hold up of the Thomas nomination — even though it’s Obama’s nominee.
Although Thomas would be the first openly gay black male to serve on the federal judiciary, U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts — who was appointed by President Clinton in 1994 — is black and a lesbian.