September 26, 2013 at 5:13 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Why is Rubio blocking a gay black judicial nominee?
Marco Rubio, 2012 Republican National Convention, Tampa, GOP, RNC, gay news, Washington Blade

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

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is being criticized for his continued hold on a gay black judicial nominee pending before the Senate as observers of the confirmation process dismiss his reasons for blocking the confirmation.

Rubio has been withholding the “blue slip” for William Thomas, whom President Obama first nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida nearly a year ago. If confirmed, Thomas would be the first openly gay black male to serve on the federal bench.

The Washington Blade  reported in July that Rubio was blocking the nomination of Thomas along with Brian Davis, another black judicial nominee who was nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. But after Rubio last week lifted his hold on Davis, the continued obstruction of Thomas gained significant attention after The New York Times reported on the story.

Refusing to turn in the “blue slip” for a nomination — a responsibility for the U.S. senators representing the state where a judicial nominee would serve — effectively blocks the Senate Judiciary Committee from advancing the nomination. Opposing the Thomas nomination is a new position for Rubio, who initially recommended Thomas for the seat following the nominee’s approval by Florida’s Federal Judicial Nominating Commission.

In a statement to the Blade, Brooke Sammon, a Rubio spokesperson, confirmed Rubio opposes the Thomas nomination.

“The nomination of Judge Thomas has also been thoroughly reviewed, and Sen. Rubio has determined that Thomas’s record on the state court raises serious concerns about his fitness for a lifetime federal appointment,” she said. “After reviewing Thomas’s record, Senator Rubio cannot support moving forward with the nomination at this time.

The senator’s office provided a long list of reported actions by Thomas in his role as a state judge in the Miami-Dade Circuit. They involve two cases over which Thomas presided.

One is the case of Michael Traverso, who killed a cyclist in a hit-and-run accident while driving on a suspended license. Rubio’s office cites concerns that Thomas sentenced Traverso to the minimum sentence of 22.8 months in jail, less time served, amounting to only 364 days.

The other involves Joel Lebron, who took part in the 2002 gang rape and murder of 18-year-old Ana Maria Angel. According to Rubio’s office, Thomas twice suppressed confessions of perpetrators of the crime including the confession of Lebron, who pulled the trigger.

Another objection cited by Rubio’s office: Thomas broke down in tears in January while sentencing Lebron to death. His office cites a Miami Herald report, but that article says Thomas wept not for Lebron, but the victim as he was reading the circumstances of the murder.

In both of these rulings, Rubio’s office says an appellate court overturned Judge Thomas in whole or in part. Additionally, Rubio’s office contends a death sentence imposed on another defendant was also reversed because Thomas “improperly” allowed certain testimony.

Rubio has supported gay judicial nominees before. Just this week, Rubio was among the 98 senators who unanimously confirmed Todd Hughes as a U.S. Circuit Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The reasons that Rubio’s office offered for blocking the nomination are in dispute. As reported by the Blade in July, Nushin Sayfie, administrative judge for the criminal division of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit in Florida, has attempted to allay concerns about the Traverso case.

In a July 19 letter to Rubio, Sayfie writes the sentence Thomas gave in the case was within his guideline range and, unlike what the media reported, the defendant wasn’t charged with the death of the victim, but “charged with leaving the scene of an accident (involving death).”

A similar letter to Rubio asserting that Thomas acted responsibly in the case was written in January by the prosecutor in the case, Jane Anderson.

The Alliance of Justice, which tracks judicial nominations, has also raised points countering Rubio’s objection to the handling of the Lebron case.

Michelle Schwartz, director of justice programs for the Alliance for Justice, said the details of those proceedings were well-known before the Thomas nomination was made.

“The decision in the Lebron case to which Rubio now claims to object occurred six years ago (and Thomas sentenced one of the defendants to death),” Schwartz said. “Remember, Rubio first said he would support Thomas, then changed his mind.  If a six-year-old decision was the issue, why did Rubio ever claim to support Thomas in the first place?”

LGBT advocates are also criticizing Rubio for his continued obstruction of the Thomas nomination and say it’s for reasons other than what his office has disclosed.

Nadine Smith, executive director of the statewide LGBT group Equality Florida, accused Rubio in a statement on Wednesday of pandering to Tea Party extremists by sabotaging the nomination of a gay, black judicial nominee.

“Once again, we see Senator Rubio playing politics when it comes to what’s best for Florida,” Smith said. “He is keeping a qualified nominee from the bench to appease extremists.”

John Aravosis, editor of AMERICAblog, accuses Rubio in a blog posting of blocking Thomas over the judicial nominee’s sexual orientation.

“I’m always intrigued when men who come off, to me at least, as rather queer act out against gay people,” Aravosis writes. “It makes me wonder if they’re projecting – or less subtly, using their public homophobia as some kind of private beard to convince their followers (and themselves?) that they’re not really closet cases.”

For its part, the White House is publicly expressing no consideration of withdrawing the nominee.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, repeated what he told the Blade in July when asked if Obama was rethinking the Thomas nomination.

“President Obama nominated Judge William Thomas more than 10 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.”

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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