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Rubio continues hold on gay black judicial nominee

Florida Republican only obstacle to advancing nomination

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Marco Rubio, 2012 Republican National Convention, Tampa, GOP, RNC, gay news, Washington Blade
Marco Rubio, 2012 Republican National Convention, Tampa, GOP, RNC, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Marco Rubio is holding up the nomination of a gay black judicial nominee who’d be the first openly gay black male to serve on the federal bench. (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

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.

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Politics

Trump’s CPAC speech did not target trans community

The former president has led an anti-trans campaign

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Former President Donald Trump speaks at CPAC on Feb. 24 2024 (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — When he took the stage before a packed ballroom at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, it seemed inevitable that former President Donald Trump would target the transgender community with insults, ridicule and hostile policy pronouncements.

After all, this kind of rhetoric had become a through-line at this year’s convening of Republican lawmakers, pundits, media personalities, electoral candidates, attorneys, activists and government officials — a feature of virtually every speech and panel discussion from Wednesday to Saturday.

And for his part, Trump kicked off his presidential campaign by pledging, in February 2023, to weaponize the federal government against the trans community if he returns to the White House. This came after he unveiled a “Plan to Protect Children from Left-Wing Gender Insanity” and was followed by similar pronouncements from Trump in the months since, as documented by GLAAD.

On Saturday, though, the former president’s speech included scant mention of LGBTQ issues, apart, perhaps, from some oblique references to “woke” public education and attacks on Christianity.

Trump instead addressed a variety of topics over an hour and a half, from attacks on President Joe Biden and the prosecutors who have targeted him with 91 felony counts to diatribes on overseas conflicts and immigration.

The Independent noted several instances in which Trump made untrue or misleading claims onstage, which concerned the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan during his presidency and a supposed electoral fraud scheme in which Californians are being sent multiple ballots.

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Politics

Harris, other political leaders issue statements on Nex Benedict’s death

Nonbinary Okla. teenager died earlier this month

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Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among the political leaders who have issued statements in recent days about the death of nonbinary teenager Nex Benedict after they were allegedly assaulted in a school bathroom after enduring months of bullying.

The 16-year-old’s death on Feb. 8 sparked outrage and questions about the high school’s response to the altercation, which had occurred the previous day. LGBTQ leaders who include Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson have called for federal investigations by the Justice and Education Departments.

Advocates pointed to the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies, particularly targeting transgender and gender-diverse communities, that have escalated in Oklahoma over the past few years, noting that they tend to increase the incidence of bias-motivated hate violence.

In their statements on X, which offered condolences to those mourning Benedict’s death, the vice president and White House press secretary also pledged solidarity with the LGBTQ community, while Pelosi took aim at “the anti-trans fervor fueled by extreme Republicans” and Pocan — who is gay and chairs the Congressional Equality Caucus — promised to keep fighting for “the dignity that nonbinary and trans Americans deserve. ”

Stitt, who in 2022 signed an anti-trans bill prohibiting students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates, wrote in his statement that “our hearts go out to Nex’s family, classmates, and the Owasso community. The death of any child in an Oklahoma school is a tragedy — and bullies must be held accountable.”

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Politics

Michael Knowles targets trans people and LGBTQ families in CPAC address

Pundit defended his infamous anti-trans remarks at last year’s event

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Michael Knowles speaks at CPAC on Feb. 22, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Right-wing commentator Michael Knowles began his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday by briefly addressing the “kerfuffle” over his proclamation during last year’s event that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”

Widely interpreted as a call for violence against transgender people or the trans community, the remarks were denounced at the time by White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who called them “shameful, hateful and dangerous.”

Looking back at the incident, Knowles told the crowd “I stand by the observation that men can’t become women.” The controversy, he said, is evidence that the country “is having an identity crisis” — primarily as a consequence of the “decline of religion in America.”

While “true freedom is a national policy based on what we know in our hearts as morally right,” as ordained by God, Knowles said a worldview that makes space for the recognition of LGBTQ people and their families is based on a “false” notion of freedom that privileges, instead, “liberation from all limits.”

He pointed to same-sex marriage as an example, arguing that marriage does not and cannot include unions between “a couple of men, or a couple of women, or three men and a billy goat, for that matter.”

Additionally, Knowles said, one may not claim the “right” to have a child, because “children are people and no one has a right to another person.” He then veered into criticizing the practice of purchasing “designer babies” on the “open market of the surrogacy industry.”

Medically assisted family planning is a symptom of America’s moral decline that is akin to abortion, Knowles said. “If we have the right to kill babies, surely we have the right to buy and sell them too.”

Knowles argued there are “trade-offs” to understanding freedom as a permission structure to identify oneself outside the cisgender male-female binary, or to build relationships and families that are not centered around heterosexual, procreative unions.

Allowing trans women to use women’s restrooms — or, as he put it, giving “men” the “freedom to use the women’s bathroom,” means that “women lose the freedom to have their own bathrooms.”

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