The U.S. Senate confirmed two openly gay black judicial nominees on Tuesday to the federal judiciary, bringing LGBT representation to federal courts in states where no out person had previously served.
Staci Michelle Yandle, whom President Obama nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in January, was confirmed by a party-line 52-44 vote. All Democrats present voted for Yandle; all Republicans present voted against her. She becomes the second openly lesbian black judicial nominee to serve on the federal bench.
Shortly thereafter, Darrin Gayles, whom Obama named for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, was confirmed unanimously by a 98-0 vote. He becomes the first openly gay black male to serve on the federal judiciary.
Sharon Lettman-Hicks, CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, praised the confirmation of the two nominees as an historic occasion.
“I am thrilled that the Senate has confirmed Attorney Yandle and Judge Gayles to the federal bench,” Lettman-Hicks said. “NBJC celebrates both confirmations that will inspire so many in the Black and LGBT communities. In addition, we celebrate the vast life experiences that they will take with them to the federal bench as they work to render impartial decisions. It’s a significant sign of progress in our nation when two individuals are judged solely on their merits when being considered for these important lifetime appointments.”
The two openly gay confirmations add to the nine openly gay Article III judges already sitting on the federal bench, making for a total of 11 openly gay judges. Ten of these judges were named during the Obama administration.
Neil Eggleston, counsel to the president, said in a White House blog post these confirmations enhance the diversity of the federal judiciary.
“As we’ve said before, these ‘firsts’ — and these milestones — are important, not because these judges will consider cases differently, but because a judiciary that better resembles our nation instills even greater confidence in our justice system, and because these judges will serve as role models for generations of lawyers to come,” Eggleston said.
But Yandle and Gayles aren’t the first openly gay black nominees confirmed to the federal bench in history. That distinction belongs to Deborah Batts, who was confirmed to the federal court in New York during the Clinton administration.
However, the confirmations do represent some historic firsts. Yandle is the first openly gay person to serve on the federal judiciary in Illinois, and Gayles is the first openly gay person to serve on the federal judiciary in Florida.
Prior to her confirmation, Yandle was a legal practitioner in southern Illinois and focused on representing victims of medical malpractice, nursing home abuse, defective products and civil rights violations. Gayles was a Miami-Dade circuit judge in state court.
The party-line vote for Yandle is striking because her nomination wasn’t controversial in the earlier stages of her confirmation process. She sailed through a breezy hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the panel approved her by a 17-1 vote.
In a statement to the Blade, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a supporters of LGBT rights, said he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Yandle because of what he said was a lack of experience.
“During my interview with Staci Yandle, it was clear to me that she had insufficient federal court or criminal law experience to be confirmed as a federal judge for the Southern District of Illinois,” Yandle said.
It’s likely the remainder of Kirk’s caucus decided to vote “no” because Kirk represents the state where Yandle would serve in the judiciary and other Republicans decided to follow his lead.
Gayles was named to the federal court after the nomination of another openly gay black male, William Thomas, failed in the Senate.
First named by Obama in November 2012, Thomas never saw a vote because one of the senators in his home state, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), refused to submit his “blue slip” to move the process forward. After the nomination stalled for more than a year, Obama didn’t resubmit Thomas’ name at the start of the session for this Congress, effectively giving Rubio a win.
Eric Lesh, fair courts manager for the LGBT group Lambda Legal, echoed the sense the two confirmations were historic.
“Today, it is more important than ever that our courts reflect the growing diversity of our country, but we have a long way to go,” Lesh said. “There are nearly 900 federal judges in the U.S., and most are white men. Federal courts are charged with providing everyone with equal access to justice, and yet justice has not always been a reality for some. A diverse judiciary serves not only to improve the quality of justice, but to boost public confidence in the courts.”