LGBT groups are pressuring the Senate to push forward with the confirmation of the first openly gay black male to the federal bench now that a hold from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the only hold up in the process.
The confirmation of William Thomas, whom President Obama first named in November for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, was as of last week held up by both U.S. senators in Florida — Bill Nelson and Rubio — who had yet to return the “blue slips” for the nomination even though it had been pending for more than eight months.
But on Wednesday, following the publication of several media reports on the issue — including one from the Washington Blade — Nelson submitted the blue slips for the nomination, according to Senate sources familiar with the process. Dan McLaughlin, a Nelson spokesperson, confirmed the Florida Democrat had returned the blue slips for the nomination.
Nelson’s office had previously said the senator hadn’t submitted the blue slips because the Senate Judiciary Committee hadn’t yet completed the background investigation on the nomination.
Nelson’s lifting of his hold on the nominee means Rubio is now the only senator obstructing Thomas from proceeding through the confirmation process. Other judicial nominees renominated at the start of the 113th Congress have received confirmation, but no action has been taken on Thomas.
Rubio’s office didn’t respond to repeated requests from the Blade over the past two weeks to comment on why he continues to hold up the Thomas nomination. According to a report last week in 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.
A judge is seeking to allay these concerns about Thomas in a letter to Rubio that was obtained by the Blade.
In the July 19 missive, Nushin Sayfie, administrative judge for the criminal division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in Florida, says the sentence Thomas gave in the case was within his guideline range. The name of the case, the victim and the defendant aren’t found in the letter.
Sayfie maintains that unlike what the media reported, the defendant wasn’t charged in the death of the victim, but “charged with leaving the scene of an accident (involving death).” Further, Sayfie said the defendant filed a motion for downward departure on the grounds that he suffered from a rare blood disease that placed him at risk of death during a prison sentence, but Thomas denied this motion.
According to Sayfie, Thomas sentenced the defendant to 23 months in state prison followed by two years of community control, but allowed him to finish the sentence locally to accommodate his medical condition.
“I hope this communication helps to answer some of the concerns you might have,” Sayfie concludes. “I have known Judge William Thomas as a colleague and friend for approximately nineteen (19) years. It was my pleasure to serve as a reference for him for the federal bench (and be interviewed at length by the ABA, the FBI and the White House Counsel’s Office!) He is a dedicated, intelligent and hard-working public servant.”
Thomas has experience both as a defense attorney and as a judge. He’s been a circuit judge in Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit since 2005, where he has presided over both civil and criminal matters. Before that, he was an assistant federal public defender in the Southern District of Florida and represented indigent clients in federal criminal cases.
Rubio faced criticism last week from members of the Congressional Black Caucus for holding up both the Thomas confirmation and that of Brian Davis, another black judicial nominee who was nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for Middle District of Florida. The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund also called for the Thomas nomination to move forward.
Rubio continues to hold up the Thomas nomination even though he and Nelson recommended Thomas for the seat following approval from Florida’s Federal Judicial Nominating Commission, which makes recommendations to the state’s senators.
But in the aftermath of Nelson lifting his hold, other LGBT groups stepped up the pressure for movement on the nomination when asked for comment by the Washington Blade.
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, is among those calling for Rubio to take action.
“He should return the blue slip and allow this well-qualified jurist to get confirmed by the U.S. Senate,” Sainz said. “The federal district court system is already backlogged. There’s no good reason why justice should be further delayed when Judge Thomas is ready, willing and able to serve.”
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, said as a Floridian for more than 25 years, she’s “disgusted” by Rubio’s lack of action on the Thomas nomination.
“By the accounts of Florida’s Federal Judicial Nominating Commission and even Senator Rubio, himself, Judge Thomas has been a principled jurist who would serve our nation with distinction on the federal bench,” Lettman-Hicks said. “Judge Thomas deserves a nomination process unobstructed by the malevolent politics of the right-wing agenda, and it is inexcusable that Senator Rubio would block the nomination of such a highly qualified and exemplary candidate, particularly at a time when our judicial system is hemorrhaging with a bevy of judicial vacancies in critical seats.”
No one has alleged discrimination based on sexual orientation as a reason for the holdup on the Thomas nomination, although the Congressional Black Caucus last week drew attention to the fact that Rubio was holding up two black judicial nominees.
Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, joined in the calls for movement on the Thomas nomination after being silent last week when both Florida senators were holding it up.
“The president nominated Judge William Thomas more than eight months ago,” Inouye said. “This judicial vacancy has been declared a ‘judicial emergency,’ and the non-partisan American Bar Association has rated Judge Thomas ‘well-qualified.’ Unfortunately, his nomination continues to be stalled, and the Senate should promptly consider it without further delay.”
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.