The U.S. Senate made history on Tuesday with little fanfare when it unanimously confirmed for the first-time ever an openly gay person to a federal appellate court.
By a vote of 98-0, the Senate confirmed Todd Hughes as a circuit judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, making him the highest-ranking openly gay judge.
In the half-hour of debate prior to his confirmation, senators focused on the budget and imminent government shutdown, although the significance of the Hughes confirmation did come up on the Senate floor.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the confirmation of Hughes is “an important milestone.”
“If confirmed, Mr. Hughes would be the first openly gay judge to serve on a federal appellate court in our nation’s history,” Leahy said. “I’m proud the Senate has finally taken an historic step to break down another barrier and increase diversity in our federal bench.”
Conservatives like Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined Democrats like Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) in voting for the nominee.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit is located in D.C. and has jurisdiction over issues such as federal claims, veterans claims and patent issues.
Under President Obama, the Senate has confirmed seven openly gay judicial nominees, but never before — either under Obama or under a previous administration — has the Senate confirmed an openly gay person to an appellate-level court.
During his confirmation hearing on June 19, Hughes identified “fidelity to the law” as a quality a federal judge should have.
“The first and foremost quality a federal judge should have is fidelity to the law,” Hughes said. “He should be fair to all the litigants. He should be thoroughly prepared, understand the facts of the case, the law and come to a reasoned and equitable decision.”
Hughes has most recently served since 2007 as deputy director for the Commercial Litigation Branch of the Civil Division at the Justice Department. Prior to that, he worked for the Commercial Litigation Branch as a trial attorney.
Obama nominated Hughes for the seat on the appeals court in February and the Senate Judiciary Committee reported out his nomination to the Senate floor in July.
Hughes’ practice has been related to federal personnel law, veterans’ benefits, international trade, government contracts and jurisdictional issues regarding the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Advocates welcomed the news of Hughes’ confirmation and called it a milestone for the LGBT community.
Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said Hughes’ confirmation is significant both in terms of the barrier it breaks and the judge’s record.
“Judge Hughes is an eminently qualified nominee who also happens to shatter a barrier as the first openly gay federal appellate court judge,” Cole-Schwartz said. “It’s a testament to how far we have come as a country that his sexual orientation is irrelevant to his ability to serve on our nation’s courts.”
D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association, said the confirmation is “an important milestone for the LGBT legal profession.”
“It also shows that Congress, and the country, want the best person for the job, regardless of sexual orientation,” Kemnitz said. “Our federal judiciary is a better one when it reflects the diversity of the nation it serves. We commend President Obama for his nomination of Hughes, and the Senate for confirming that nomination.”
The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary gave Hughes a rating of “unanimously well qualified” during his confirmation process.
Obama made an attempt before to seat an openly gay person to a federal appeals court, but it didn’t succeed. In 2010, Obama nominated Edward Dumont to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, but that nomination was rescinded after no action was taken on the appointment for 18 months and DuMont requested his name be withdrawn.
Now that the Senate has confirmed Hughes, a total of 50 judicial nominees nominated by Obama remain pending before the Senate awaiting action. Thirteen are pending on the Senate floor and 37 are pending in committee.
Among the 37 is William Thomas, whom Obama first nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida nearly a year ago in November. If confirmed, Thomas would be the first openly gay black person to sit on the federal bench.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who had previously supported the Thomas confirmation, has been holding up the proceedings for the nominee by refusing to return a “blue slip” to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Washington Blade has previously reported that Rubio was holding up the confirmation process for Thomas by refusing to turn in the “blue slip” for the nominee.
Brooke Sammon, a Rubio spokesperson, told the Blade and other media outlets this week Thomas’s record as a judge on state court “raises serious concerns about his fitness” for a lifetime federal appointment.
“Those concerns include questions about his judicial temperament and his willingness to impose appropriate criminal sentences, particularly in the two high-profile cases of Michele Traverso and Joel Lebron earlier this year,” Sammon said. “After reviewing Thomas’s record, Senator Rubio cannot support moving forward with the nomination at this time.”
With respect to the Traverso case, Nushin Sayfie, administrative judge for the criminal division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in Florida, wrote a letter to Rubio over the summer saying the sentence Thomas gave was within his guideline range, as the Washington Blade previously reported.
The White House didn’t respond to a request to comment on whether Obama would rescind his nomination of Thomas over Rubio’s objections.
Other openly gay nominees pending before the Senate are James “Wally” Brewster, Jr., who was nominated as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and Chai Feldblum, who was nominated for a second term for a seat on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.