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Lesbian judicial nominee pledges fairness on the bench

Chen takes questions on judicial modesty, but LGBT issues don’t come up

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Pamela Ki Mai Chen, federal judge nominee, lesbian, attorney, New York, Senate Judicial Committee
Pamela Ki Mai Chen, federal judge nominee, lesbian, attorney, New York, Senate Judicial Committee

Pamela Ki Mai Chen (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A lesbian federal court nominee faced questions during her nomination hearing on Wednesday about her history in party politics and judicial temperament, but sexual orientation or LGBT issues didn’t come into play.

Pamela Ki Mai Chen, whom President Obama nominated in August for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, took questions during her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on a panel of five judicial nominees.

If confirmed, Chen would join four other openly gay judges currently sitting on the federal bench and be the first Asian-American member of the LGBT community to sit on the federal court.

Perhaps the most pointed question came from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican, who asked about her work in party politics. The senator said that there wasn’t anything wrong with a judicial nominee having this history, but questioned whether it would interfere with her ability to rule impartially on cases.

“Absolutely, I can assure you that politics will play no role in my decision making were I fortunate enough to be confirmed,” Chen said. “The assurances I can give you are based on my career as a public servant and working for the Department of Justice. No one accused me of ever making a decision based on any kind of political ideology, and I think my record speaks for itself over the last 20 years.”

No questions came up during the hearing about sexual orientation or how she’d rule if presented with an LGBT-related case. Those issues are also largely absent from the questionnaire she submitted to the committee, which largely discusses her casework as a federal prosecutor and her focus on prosecuting human trafficking. The only LGBT reference found in the questionnaire was her membership in the National LGBT Bar Association.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who recommended the Chen nomination to Obama, introduced the nominee to the committee as he chaired the panel in the absence of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Schumer made a special mention of Chen’s partner, Amy Chester, as well as her partner’s sister, Sara Glasser.

Schumer touted Chen’s work as a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she has served since 1998 — now as chief of the office’s civil rights litigation unit. The senator said she’s prosecuted “all manner of public corruption, gang, narcotics, and terrorism cases,” but he particularly praised her work against human trafficking, saying she’s become “internationally renowned for her tough and important prosecutions.”

“Ms. Chen is, all in all, not just a career prosecutor – although that in itself is a high calling – but a person whose lifelong dedication to justice, and to simply doing the right thing, bespeaks a perfect temperament for the bench,” Schumer said. “Anyone who knows her whom you talk to in New York will attest to this quality, and I look forward to many more years of Ms. Chen’s public service.”

Keeping her opening remarks concise, Chen recognized her partner seated behind her and family watching via the webcast in addition to thanking Obama for nominating her for the position.

To each of the nominees, Schumer asked how their experience would impact their decisions as judges and their views on judicial moderation. In response, Chen said she believes being a federal prosecutor has prepared her for a role on the court and taught her the importance of the rule of law, fairness and impartiality. She added judicial modesty means to her “understanding the limited role of the judiciary” and following precedent.

A Chinese-American, Chen’s parents were both born in China, but met after they both moved to the United States. Prior to working as 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. Chen received a rating of “unanimously qualified” from the American Bar Association.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) questioned Chen about the criteria by which she’d interpret statutes and asked if she’d be more swayed by the words themselves or her perception of the subjective intent of the legislators who create the laws. As he asked the question, Lee noted Chen was smiling, saying, “I can tell you’re excited about that. That’s good. It speaks well of your enthusiasm to the task.”

“Certainly the former, rather than the latter,” Chen replied. “The plain text of a statute is the first thing, the primary source of interpretation. If the meaning is plain on the face of the statute, then the interpretation process stops there. If there’s any ambiguity about the meaning of the plain language of the statute itself, then I would refer to precedent, and interpretations of the statute that are controlling in my district, which would be the Second Circuit of the Supreme Court. If there was no directly controlling precedent, I would look for interpretations of analogous statutes or precedent in those circuits that would be guiding in some way or helpful. And then lastly, if all else fails, looking again at legislative history would be another source to divining the meaning of a statute.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked nominees about the importance of the federal government providing resources to localities to confront domestic violence and sex trafficking, citing the need to pass pending reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The Senate version of the the legislation contains explicit protections for the LGBT community against domestic violence, but this language isn’t found in the House version of the bill.

Chen affirmed the importance of localities participating in these efforts, saying, “The importance of local law enforcement and local advocacy agencies — I can attest personally, because of their nature of the crime being so hidden — it’s essential that first responders and people within these communities are able to help identify victims of trafficking, help provide support to them and help bring them to the attention of the local authorities. We’ve done that in countless cases.”

The Senate is poised to adjourn at the end of this week to allow the senators to run their campaigns, so the committee vote on the nomination couldn’t come up until the lame duck session of Congress after Election Day. Given Senate Republicans’ history of obstructing judicial nominees, whether she’ll get a vote in the Senate or have enough votes for confirmation remains to be seen.

 

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Virginia

Va. Senate committee kills six anti-transgender bills

Democrats control chamber by 22-18 margin

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Virginia Senate Education Committee on Thursday killed six anti-transgender bills.

The committee rejected state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 960, state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Colonial Heights)’s Senate Bill 791 and state Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania County)’s Senate Bill 1203. All three measures would have banned transition-related health care for minors in Virginia.

The committee also killed state Sen. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake)’s Senate Bill 911, Reeves’ Senate Bill 1186 and Peake’s Senate Bill 962. The measures would have banned transgender athletes from school teams corresponding with their gender identity.

Equality Virginia in a tweet said committee members received more than 3,000 emails “in opposition” to the bills. The statewide advocacy group further noted 10 out of 12 anti-trans bills introduced during this year’s legislative session have been defeated.

“Thank you to everyone who has spoken up against these bills,” said Equality Virginia. “Virginia is remaining a better, more inclusive state because of your efforts.”

“The fight isn’t over,” added the advocacy group. “But we know Virginians will show up for trans youth, day after day.”

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Virginia

Va. Senate subcommittee essentially kills three anti-transgender bills

Measures would ban transition-related health care for minors

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Virginia Senate subcommittee on Tuesday essentially killed three bills that would have banned transition-related health care for minors in the state.

Equality Virginia in a tweet noted the Senate Health Subcommittee “recommended killing” state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 960, state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Colonial Heights)’s Senate Bill 791 and state Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania County)’s Senate Bill 1203. 

“We expect these bills to be officially dead after the full committee meets on Thursday,” said Equality Virginia.

Democrats have a 22-18 majority in the state Senate, and they have said they will block any anti-LGBTQ bill that reaches their chamber. State Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas), who is the first openly transgender woman seated in a state legislature in the U.S., on Tuesday reiterated this point.

“With the defeat of these bills in the Senate, our (Virginia Senate Democrats) made it clear that *any* bills in the House targeting trans kids during the final week before crossover will not become law if they make it to the Senate,” she tweeted. “Let’s focus on feeding kids, not singling them out.”

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The White House

Doug Emhoff visits monument to gay victims of the Nazis in Berlin

Second gentleman marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Auschwitz

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The Memorial to Homosexuals persecuted under Nazism in Berlin on July 23, 2022. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff visited the memorial on Jan. 31, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff on Tuesday visited a monument to gay victims of the Nazis in Berlin.

A readout from Emhoff’s office notes he visited the Memorial to the Persecuted Homosexuals under National Socialism with Philipp Braun of the Lesbian and Gay Federation of Germany, a German LGBTQ and intersex rights group. Christopher Schreiber and Alexander Scheld of the Berlin-Brandenburg Lesbian and Gay Federation were also with Emhoff.

“The Memorial to the Persecuted Homosexuals under Nazi Socialism is intended to honor the homosexual victims of National Socialism and at the same time ‘set a constant sign against intolerance, hostility and exclusion towards gays and lesbians,'” notes the readout.

Emhoff on Tuesday visited other memorials that honor the Sinti and Roma and people with disabilities who the Nazis killed. The second gentleman also visited Berlin’s Holocaust memorial before he met with five people who survived it.

The second gentleman earlier in the day participated in a roundtable with Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders and met with Ukrainian refugees at Berlin’s New Synagogue. Emhoff on Monday participated in a meeting at the city’s Topography of Terror Museum that focused on antisemitism.

International Holocaust Memorial Day, which commemorates the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland in 1945, took place on Jan. 27. 

Emhoff, who is Jewish, traveled to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum and participated in ceremonies that commemorated the camp’s liberation. He later attended a Shabbat dinner with members of the Jewish community in Krakow, visited Oscar Schindler’s factory and met with Ukrainian refugees at a U.N. Refugee Agency community center before he traveled to Germany.

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