August 2, 2012 at 6:32 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Obama nominates Chinese-American lesbian to federal bench

President Obama nominated on Thursday an out lesbian to a New York district court who, upon confirmation, could become one of a handful of openly LGBT people to sit on the federal bench.

Obama named Pamela Ki Mai Chen, an assistant U.S. attorney who has experience as a trial attorney, to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. In addition to being one the few openly LGBT people to serve on the federal bench upon confirmation, she would be the second female Chinese-American judge in history.

In a statement, Obama said, “I am proud to nominate this outstanding candidate to serve on the United States District Court bench. Pamela Chen has a long and distinguished record of service, and I am confident she will serve on the federal bench with distinction.”

According to biographical information, Chen has been an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York for 14 years — with the exception of a four-month period in 2008 when she served as New York State Division of Human Rights’s Deputy Commissioner for Enforcement.

As a U.S. attorney, Chen served has held different supervisory positions, including chief of the civil rights section and deputy chief of the public integrity section. She’s specialized in criminal civil rights matters, such as human trafficking, and has provided training to law enforcement on the issue.

Prior to being a U.S. attorney, 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.

A first-generation American, Chen’s parents came to the United States as immigrants from China and met in the United States at the University of Chicago during World War II.

The Senate must confirm Chen before the end of this year or else her nomination will expire, which gives the chamber a limited amount of time to take action. The Senate is about to enter into August recess for five weeks, and no hearings have yet been scheduled in September before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would hold the hearing on her nomination.

Obama nominates Chen just one day after Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that he had recommendation her nomination to the White House. In a statement, Schumer commended her for her stellar legal background and even-handedness.

“Pamela Chen will be an excellent federal judge,” Schumer said. “She is an experienced attorney with a long record of public service who possesses the legal excellence, intellect and temperament to be a first-rate judge. Ms. Chen is a trailblazer in every sense of the word. Her leadership skills, her commitment to justice, and her extensive experience make her an fantastic choice for a position on the Eastern District Court.”

Chen’s nomination makes her the fifth openly LGBT person that the Obama administration has nominated to the federal bench. Alison Nathan, another lesbian, was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, as were two gay men: 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. Edmund Dumont, was nominated to serve on the U S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, but his nomination was withdrawn after the Senate took action on his nomination over the course of 18 months.

Deborah Batts, a lesbian, was appointed to the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York during the Clinton administration. Retired U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who ruled in 2010 that California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, is gay, but didn’t come out publicly until after he retired.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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