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In first, Senate confirms out fed’l appeals judge

Hughes confirmed unanimously to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit

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Todd Hughes, gay news, Washington Blade
Todd Hughes, gay news, Washington Blade

Todd Hughes is the first openly gay man confirmed to a federal appeals court (Screen shot via judiciary.senate.gov).

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.

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Pulse survivor ‘at a loss’ over Texas elementary school massacre

Brandon Wolf is Equality Florida’s press secretary

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Brandon Wolf was a Grand Marshal at the 2019 Capital Pride Parade on June 8, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Adam Hall)

A survivor of the Pulse nightclub massacre on Wednesday said he is “at a loss” over the massacre at a Texas elementary school that left 21 people dead.

“Twenty-one people were murdered,” said Equality Florida Press Secretary Brandon Wolf in a statement he sent to the Washington Blade a day after a gunman killed 21 people inside Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. “Nineteen of them were children — babies. That means 19 families sent their elementary age kids off to school only to get the worst news: That their babies would be leaving class in body bags.”

Wolf was inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on June 12, 2016, when a gunman opened fire and killed 49 people. His two close friends — Christopher “Drew” Leinonen and his fiancé, Juan Guerrero — were among those killed.

Wolf in his statement noted “right wing politicians have spent the past year insisting that the greatest threats our children face are the potential they’ll learn that this nation was built on the backs of enslaved Black people or that their teacher uses they/them pronouns.”

“They’ve banned books, censored curriculum and bastardized history lessons,” said Wolf. “All the while, they haven’t lifted a finger to protect kids from what is killing them.”

Equality Florida echoed Wolf’s sentiments.

“I am heartbroken for the shattered families,” added Wolf. “Grief-stricken for these stolen lives. And enraged at the power-hungry leaders who have chosen time and again to serve up this country’s most vulnerable as sacrifices in exchange for a boost up the ladder of their own ambitions.”

Axel Rodríguez’s friend, Xavier Serrano Rosado, died inside the Pulse nightclub.

Rodríguez told the Blade that Tuesday was “such a dad day for us here” in Orlando.

“It is like going through the same emotions we had when the attack at Pulse happened, but it’s even worse because we are talking about children,” he said. “When will our government stop thinking about money and stop this madness? Everyone now can obtain a gun anywhere. I just cannot comprehend that at all.”

The Pulse nightclub massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history until a gunman on Oct. 1, 2017, killed 60 people at a concert in Las Vegas.

A gunman on Feb. 14, 2018, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Twenty children and six adults died in the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

The Robb Elementary School massacre took place less than three years after a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.

“There are no words,” tweeted Pride Center San Antonio, which is roughly 90 minutes east of Robb Elementary School, on Wednesday.

“Our hearts are with the Uvalde community,” said Equality Texas on Tuesday. “Every child deserves to free safe at school.”

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Texas

Republican lawmaker claims Texas school gunman was transgender

Massacre victims were inside single classroom

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Families gather at a Uvalde, Texas, civic center to wait for news about their loved ones. (Photo courtesy of Niki Griswold/Twitter)

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed that all of the 19 children and two adults were killed in single classroom at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Tuesday.

According to officials, 18-year-old Salvador Rolando Ramos, wearing body armor had barricaded himself inside a fourth-grade classroom, where all the fatalities and injuries occurred. Ramos, who attended the nearby high school, was killed on scene by a member of a federal U.S. Border Patrol tactical unit who had responded alongside local law enforcement.

Several other children were injured in the attack, including a 10-year-old who remained in critical condition in a Texas hospital. Law enforcement officials told reporters Ramos shot his grandmother before heading to the school with two military-style rifles he bought on his 18th birthday which was within the last two weeks.

Law enforcement has only released some of the victim’s identities and according to the Austin Statesman newspaper’s political reporter Niki Griswold, parents were gathered late into the night to give DNA samples to find out whether or not their children were among the dead. Griswold also tweeted, “The agonized screams of family members are audible from the parking lot,” as she also noted “A family has erupted into sobs outside the civic center.”

As Texas and the nation reeled in shock over yet another deadly mass shooting, Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar, who espouses radical right view points and former President Trump’s MAGA philosophy, took to Twitter and spread a false and transphobic claim that the suspected shooter was a “transsexual leftist illegal alien.”

Screenshot of now-deleted tweet by Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar

As of Tuesday evening, Gosar had not commented on his tweet, which was deleted about two hours after being published.

Gosar is an anti-immigration, anti-vaxxer, radical right hardliner who routinely cozies up to white nationalists. He was apparently promoting a false claim circulating on right-wing networks. Users shared images of a transgender person unrelated to the attack claiming they were the shooter.

President Biden addresses nation the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday evening.
(Screenshot/White House YouTube)

In Washington last night, President Biden, speaking to the nation said;

“Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” he asked. “Why do we keep letting this happen?  Where in God’s name is our backbone to have the courage to deal with it and stand up to the [gun] lobbies? 

Speaking from personal experience, as a father who has lost two children, Biden added: “To lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away. There’s a hollowness in your chest, and you feel like you’re being sucked into it and never going to be able to get out. It’s suffocating. And it’s never quite the same.”

Global reaction included sympathy from Ukraine’s leadership.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed condolences to the community of Uvalde where the 21 people — including the 19 students — were murdered in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.

“Deeply saddened by the news of the murder of innocent children in Texas,” Zelenskyy wrote. “Sincere condolences to the families of the victims, the people of the U.S. and @POTUS over this tragedy. The people of Ukraine share the pain of the relatives and friends of the victims and all Americans.”

NPR reported Wednesday that Zelenskyy also referenced the shooting while speaking by video link at a conference on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in which he drew a direct parallel between the shooting and the war in Ukraine.

“I feel it is my personal tragedy when children are killed in Texas, and now in my country Russian military is killing our children,” he said.

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Africa

Senegal advocacy group demands better treatment of LGBTQ prisoners

Homosexuality remains criminalized in West African country

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(Bigstock photo)

The founder of a Senegalese advocacy group has criticized the treatment of LGBTQ people in the country’s prisons.

Souleymane Diouf, founder of Collectif Free du Sénégal, says prisoners suffer physical and sexual abuse, especially from other inmates. Diouf notes prison wardens are often reluctant to respond due to current laws that criminalize same sex relations.

“There is a considerable difference in treatment between homosexual and heterosexual prisoners. This difference is due to the behavior of prison officers, but also to the attitude of other inmates. The overcrowding of the prisons has furthermore worsened the situation and the attitudes of rejection towards 2SLGBTQIA+ persons,” said Diouf. “The difference in treatment occurs at all stages of the deprivation of physical liberty.”

Diouf said LGBTQ detainees are often beaten at police stations, such as in Dakar’s Mermoz district in October 2020 during a wave of arrests.

“One of the young people arrested during this police raid had complained of having been tortured in prison and had received very bad treatment,” said Diouf. “He complained of having a stomach ache following a kick he received, but had not been taken care of, neither at the hospital nor at the infirmary of the prison where he was held.”

Diouf said the man died shortly after his release.

“The exact nature of the death is not known,” said Diouf. “Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder or draw parallels with his conditions of incarceration.

Diouf also said LGBTQ people are not placed in solitary confinement cells.

“This situation, as well as the recurrent overcrowding of prisoners within the prisons, increases the risk of sexual violence,” said Diouf.

Diouf noted lesbian women are held at Dakar’s Cap Manuel Prison, but less information is known about their treatment.

“They are subjected to verbal abuse but seem to be spared physical abuse,” said Diouf. “However, their conditions of detention are far from obvious, due to the dilapidated state of the prisons.”

Diouf noted Senegalese civil society organizations that advocate for these prisoners are often ineffective because of the hostility they may face if the community and law enforcement agencies discover they are LGBTQ lobbyists.

“The Senegalese State is totally uninvolved in the security of 2SLGBTQIA+ persons,” said Diouf. “Complaints are rarely filed, when an 2SLGBTQIA+ person reports to the authorities a danger or an imminent threat to their life little is done for the victim. Also calls for hatred and murder targeting the 2SLGBTQIA+ community go largely unpunished in the country.” 

“The government is more concerned about the upcoming elections than the 2SLGBTQIA+ community,” added Diouf. “As for the civil society, it remains inert and the last two years have been characterized by a clear increase in hostility towards 2SLGBTQIA+ people.”

Diouf also painted a grim picture for the country’s LGBTQ community, citing there are more stringent measures in the making that are meant to further suppress those who identify as LGBTQ.

Same-sex relations in Senegal are prohibited under the country’s 1965 penal code that criminalizes so-called unnatural acts with between 1-5 years in prison and a fine that can range from $170-$2,580.

Both men and women are criminalized under this law.

A group of Senegalese lawmakers last December announced plans to introduce a bill that would double the length of jail terms for those convicted of same-sex activities to between five and 10 years. One lawmaker, Amadou Ba, stated that voting against the “bill criminalizing homosexuality will be equivalent to its legalization.”

Anti-LGBTQ groups last May burned the Pride flag during a rally and demanded a new, more repressive anti-LGBTQ law to be passed. They also called for the criminalization of homosexuality to be an issue at the next presidential election in 2024.

“Today, we should be able to fight for the visibility of all the points of view that are expressed regarding the 2SLGBTQIA+ communities,” said Diouf. “However, we are far from it.”

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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