Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has won his battle against the White House over the confirmation of a gay black judicial nominee to the federal bench.
At the start of the year, the White House submitted to the Senate a list of more than 200 nominations previously named by Obama. But, as first reported by The Huffington Post, William Thomas, whom Obama named for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, isn’t among the nominees.
A White House official confirmed for the Washington Blade that Thomas wasn’t resubmitted.
“The nomination of Judge William Thomas was returned by the Senate and Sen. Rubio has made his objection clear, so the president chose not to renominate him,” the official said.
Had Thomas been confirmed by the Senate, he would have been the first openly gay black male to sit on the federal bench. (Deborah Batts, confirmed to the federal bench in 1994 and the first-ever out person to sit on the federal judiciary, is also black.)
Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, was among those expressing disappointment that the Thomas nomination didn’t succeed.
“We supported the Thomas nomination,” Sainz said. “We are disappointed that Judge Thomas was not re-nominated but we know that Sen. Rubio’s opposition to Thomas is unwavering and that the senator would not have let this exceptionally qualified judge move forward.”
Over the course of more than a year since Obama first nominated Thomas in November 2012, the nomination has been blocked. Rubio refused to hand in the “blue slip” to the Senate Judiciary Committee to allow the nomination to go forward, even though the Florida senator initially recommended Thomas and the nominee received a rating of “well-qualified” from the American Bar Association.
Faced with accusations that he was holding up Thomas because of his race and sexual orientation, Rubio pointed to the way Thomas as a state judge in the Miami-Dade Circuit handled two cases as reasons for holding up the nomination. The objection in one case was for being too lenient; the objection in the other was for being too harsh.
One was 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.
The reasons that Rubio’s office offered for blocking the nomination are in dispute. Attorneys involved in the cases wrote letters to Rubio last year, saying Thomas acted responsibly.
A Senate staffer confirmed for the Blade this week that Rubio had never returned his “blue slip” to allow the Thomas nomination to move forward.
LGBT advocates who had been pushing the Thomas expressed disappointment over the missed opportunity of confirming the first openly gay black male to the federal bench.
Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said the fallout was troublesome because more diversity is needed on the federal bench.
“We need more diversity in the federal judiciary, not less and it’s disappointing that Judge William Thomas was not included among the nominees the White House submitted to the Senate this week,” Carey said. “Sen. Marco Rubio’s procedural maneuvering to stop this nominee was unacceptable and harmful given that the vacancy on the Southern District Court of Florida has been classified as a judicial emergency.”
Denis Dison, a spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, also expressed disappointment that the Thomas nomination didn’t succeed. The Presidential Appointment Project, a Victory Fund-led initiative, recommended Thomas to the White House.
“It’s hard to see how Sen. Rubio’s bizarre behavior with regard to this nomination is anything but politically motivated, and that’s a shame,” Dison said. “Judge Thomas is highly qualified and his nomination enjoyed broad support. The fact that he is openly gay should have no bearing on the Senate confirmation process.”
But Thomas wasn’t the only pending LGBT judicial nominee before the Senate. One other remains: Judith Levy, a lesbian whom Obama nominated in July for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Her nomination is still before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Brooke Sammon, a Rubio spokesperson, pointed to a previous statement she issued on Thomas when asked if the Florida senator was satisfied his nomination didn’t succeed.
“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,” Sammon said. “Those concerns include questions about his judicial temperament and his willingness to impose appropriate criminal sentences, particularly in the two high-profile cases of Michael Traverso and Joel Lebron last year. After reviewing Thomas’s record, Sen. Rubio cannot support moving forward with the nomination.”