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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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World

Jamaica man attacked after using gay dating app

Victim’s penis partially severed before he was set on fire

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A Jamaican and Pride flag fly on the beach in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on Oct. 15, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Tomlinson's Facebook page)

An 18-year-old man in Jamaica remains hospitalized in critical condition after he was targeted on a gay dating app.

The Jamaica Gleaner reports the victim on Oct. 11 went to a neighborhood in Montego Bay, a resort city that is the capital of Jamaica’s St. James Parish, to meet the man with whom he was speaking.

The newspaper reports the man and two other men abducted the victim, robbed him and partially severed his penis before they set him on fire. Officials said the three men took his cell phone and used his bank card to withdraw money from his account.

“He is a very lucky young man because although they left him in a critical condition, he managed to make his way to a security checkpoint in the community where they assisted him to the hospital, where he was admitted in critical condition,” a local police officer told the Jamaica Gleaner.

The Jamaica Gleaner reported a 43-year-old man in St. James Parish disappeared in January 2020 after he went to meet someone with whom he had spoken on a gay dating website. Authorities later found the man’s body, and two men have been charged with his murder.

Violence against LGBTQ Jamaicans remains commonplace. Consensual same-sex sexual relations also remain criminalized in the country.

J-FLAG, a Jamaican LGBTQ rights group, has condemned the latest attack.

“Like all well-thinking Jamaicans at this time, JFLAG is outraged at the recent attack on an 18-year-old man in St. James,” tweeted J-FLAG on Sunday. “His attackers must be brought to justice.”

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National

Colin Powell, leaving mixed legacy on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ dies at 84

Key figure once opposed gays in military, then backed review

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gay news, Washington Blade, Colin Powell, gay marriage
Colin Powell leaves behind a mixed legacy on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Colin Powell, the first ever Black secretary of state who served in top diplomatic and military roles in U.S. administrations, died Monday of coronavirus at age 84, leaving behind a mixed record on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The world continues to grapple with the pandemic and the public grows increasingly frustrated with its persistence as many remain unvaccinated despite the wide availability of vaccines. Powell was fully vaccinated, according to a statement released upon his death. Powell reportedly suffered from multiple myeloma, a condition that hampers an individual’s ability to combat blood infections.

Rising to the top of the military as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell supported in 1993 Congress moving forward with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that barred openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military.

During a key moment congressional testimony, Powell and other top military officials were asked whether or not allowing gay people in the military would be compatible with military readiness. Each official, including Powell,” responded “incompatible.” Congress would enact “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that year.

Things changed when President Obama took office 15 years later and advocates for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were eager to claim Powell’s voice among their ranks. After all, Powell was highly respected as a bipartisan voice after having served as secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush and endorsing Obama in the 2008 election.

After the Obama administration in 2010 announced it would conduct a review of the idea of allowing gay people to serve openly in the military, Powell came out in support of that process. Advocates of repeal called that a declaration of reversal, although the statement fell short of a full support for gay people serving openly in the military.

“In the almost 17 years since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed,” General Powell said in a statement issued by his office, adding, “I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen.”

Congress acted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the policy was lifted in 2011. At the time, Powell was widely considered a supporter of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and publicly counted among supporters of repeal, although the Blade couldn’t immediately find any statements from him to that effect.

In 2012, Powell had similar vaguely supportive words on same-sex marriage, saying he had “no problem with it” when asked about the issue.

“As I’ve thought about gay marriage, I know a lot of friends who are individually gay but are in partnerships with loved ones, and they are as stable a family as my family is, and they raise children,” Powell said. “And so I don’t see any reason not to say that they should be able to get married.”

The Blade also couldn’t immediately find any statement from Powell on transgender people serving in the military. After the Obama administration in 2016 lifted decades-old regulations against transgender service, former President Trump issued a ban by tweet the following year. President Biden reversed that ban and allowed transgender people to serve and enlist in the military in his first year in office.

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World

Botswana attorney general seeks to recriminalize homosexuality

High Court heard case on Oct. 12

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(Public domain photo)

GABORONE, Botswana — On June 11, 2019, Botswana moved toward being a state that no longer held some of its citizens (and, by extension, visitors) as criminals if they identified within the LGBTQ spectrum. However, the government didn’t take too long before it declared its intention to appeal the High Court judgment that asserted that consensual same-sex sexual activity in private was not to be a criminal act.

The appeal hearing took place on Oct. 12.

There are some key things to understand about what the High Court did for people in Botswana. The judgment, written and delivered by Justice Leburu, not only put a clear delineation between the state’s powers to intrude in people’s private sexual lives, but it also stated that laws that served no purpose in the governance of the people they oversaw were most likely worthy of “a museum peg” more than being active laws of the land.

In the hearing on Oct. 9, a full bench of five judges of the Court of Appeal was treated to the government’s case—as presented by advocate Sydney Pilane of the Attorney General’s Chambers—along with hearing the rebuttals from the legal counsel representing Letsweletse Motshidiemang, who brought the original case against the government, and LEGABIBO, an NGO admitted as amicus curiae, a friend of the court. The appeal, two years in the making, would have been expected to be based on facts rather than opinions of what could and could not be accepted by hypothetical Batswana. Pilane even went so far as to contest that President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s utterances about how people in same-sex relationships were “suffering in silence” were taken out of context as he was talking about gender-based violence and not endorsing their relationships.

The 2019 ruling of the High Court, the most supreme court of incidence in the country, not only declared people who were or had interest in engaging in consensual same-sex sexual activity not criminals, but it also allowed non-queer people to engage in sex acts that would otherwise be considered “against the order of nature” freely. The latter clause had often been interpreted as being solely about non-heterosexuals but on greater interrogation one realizes that any sex act that doesn’t result in the creation of a child was considered against this ‘order of nature’ and that nullified much of heterosexual sexual exploration—further painting these clauses as out of touch with contemporary Botswana as Leburu expressed.

In some of his appeal arguments, Pilane stated that Batswana “do not have a problem with gay people”, yet he based his contention on the fact that Batswana “respect the courts’ decisions;” as such they would not take up arms at the court’s decision to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual activity. Pilane maintained that the decision to decriminalize should be left to the Parliament on the recommendation of the courts. The bench was swift to query whether a body of politicians elected by a majority would be the best representatives of a minority that was oppressed by laws that the very politicians benefitted from.

Botswana’s legal system allows for the High Court ruling to remain the law of the land until such a point as it’s struck down. The Court of Appeal ruling in favor of Batswana’s sexual liberties will be a nail in the proverbial coffin of residual colonial sex-related laws plaguing Botswana. This will not be the end by any means though. Where the attorney general can form a case stating that decriminalizing consensual same-sex relations could be likened to people locking themselves in their houses with animals and having their way with them, we know that mindset changes need to be prioritized to ensure that all Batswana understand their constitutionally protected rights to privacy, expression, and freedom of association as relates to their personal and sexual lives.

The 2010 Employment Act of Botswana already protects people from being discriminated against based on their sex or gender identity. The nation’s sexual violence laws were made gender neutral, thus covering non-consensual sex (rape) in all its possibilities. In upholding the ruling of the High Court, the Court of Appeal will allow the LGBTQ and SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics) movements in Botswana some respite as attention is then channeled toward other pressing matters such as name changes, access to healthcare, and other culturally pertinent issues.

The Court of Appeal is expected to hand down a judgement following their deliberations in 4-6 weeks (mid to late November), however, this remains at their discretion. As it stands, since the High Court ruling in 2019, Botswana has experienced increased social accommodation for LGBTQ matters and figures—however, this is not to say there have not been any negative instances. With the continued sensitization, the expectation is that the courts, the government and NGO players will all contribute to a broad, national, culturing of LGBTQ rights in Botswana devoid of colonial residues.

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