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Rubio wins battle against gay black judicial nominee

Marco Rubio, Florida, Republican Party, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won his battle against a gay black judicial nominee. (Washington Blade file photo by Lee Whitman)

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.”

11
Jan
2014

Obama nominates black lesbian to serve on federal judiciary

President Obama nominated a black lesbian on Thursday to the federal judiciary. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key).

President Obama nominated a black lesbian on Thursday to the federal judiciary. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Obama added to his list of openly gay judicial appointments on Thursday by naming a black lesbian to serve on the federal court.

Obama nominated Staci Michelle Yandle for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois on Thursday as part of a group of four nominees.

“I am pleased to nominate these distinguished individuals to serve on the United States District Court bench,” Obama said in a statement. “I am confident they will serve the American people with integrity and a steadfast commitment to justice.”

Yandle, who was recommended by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), will need confirmation from the U.S. Senate before she’s seated on the bench.

In a statement, Durbin called Yandle an “excellent candidate” to serve on the federal judiciary in Illinois.

“She will bring a wealth of knowledge and litigation experience to the position,” Durbin said. “I am pleased that President Obama has nominated her today. I will be working with Senator Kirk to see her nomination approved by the Senate.”

The U.S. Senate has already confirmed a total of eight openly gay judges to the federal bench, and Obama named seven of the them. If confirmed, Yandle would be the first openly gay person to serve Illinois on the federal judiciary.

In an interview with Trial Associate in July, Yandle said she thinks the plaintiff bar can be more diverse “whether you are talking about ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation diversity” — a rule she said could apply to any profession.

“The plaintiff bar needs to be more embracing of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community,” Yandle said. “When I first started practicing, for a while I did not feel comfortable acknowledging my sexual orientation because I didn’t want it to cost me my job. I wanted to be judged on my merit and my merit alone. Many members of the LGBT community still have that fear. We are a traditional profession that is conservative in many ways.”

According to a bio provided by the White House, Yandle has served as a solo practitioner in southern Illinois since 2007, where she focused her practice on civil litigation in federal and state court. She received her law degree in 1987 from the Vanderbilt University and her bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois in 1983.

Yandle has also engaged in public service, serving by appointment on the Illinois Gaming Board from 1999 to 2001 and on the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the 1990s.

LGBT advocates praised the Yandle nomination for its potential to add diversity to the federal judiciary.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, was among those praising Obama for his choice.

“The nomination of Staci Michelle Yandle is further evidence that the administration is committed to building a judiciary that reflects the diversity of our country,” Cole-Schwartz said. “She is a highly qualified nominee who will serve with distinction.”

Denis Dison, spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said the confirmation of Yandle to the federal judiciary would enhance the diversity of the courts.

“Our government, including the judiciary, works best when it benefits from the perspectives and experiences of all Americans, so we applaud the president’s effort to increase diversity on the federal bench,” Dison said. “Staci Yandle’s nomination is also a reminder of the enormous talent, professionalism and diversity that exists within the American LGBT community, and we congratulate her on this achievement.”

But Yandle wasn’t the only openly LGBT nominee that Obama named on Thursday. Shamina Singh, executive director for the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, was nominated for a seat on the Board of Directors of the Corporation for National & Community Service

Yandle wouldn’t be the first openly lesbian African American to serve on the federal judiciary. That distinction belongs to Deborah Batts, whom the Senate confirmed during the Clinton administration in 1994 for a seat on the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York.

It’s also not the first time that Obama has nominated an openly LGBT black person to serve on the federal judiciary. In November 2012, Obama nominated William Thomas for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

However, after initially recommending the nominee, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) objected to Thomas and held up the nomination. After no action was taken on the nomination over more than a year, Obama didn’t renew his recommendation of Thomas at the start of the year.

In related news, another openly LGBT judicial nominee advanced in the Senate on the same day that Obama named Yandle for a seat on the federal courts.

The Senate Judiciary Committee reported out Judith Levy, whom Obama nominated in July for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, by voice vote as part of a group of 32 nominees. She currently serves as an assistant U.S. attorney in Michigan.

D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association, praised the committee for moving forward with the Levy nomination and urged the full Senate to confirm her.

“Just as women, African Americans, Latinos and others have made our judicial system stronger through their expertise and experiences, openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender judges and attorneys also ensure our courts reflect our country,” Kemnitz said. “We now call on the full Senate to vote on Levy’s nomination without delay.”

16
Jan
2014

Obama tries again: 2nd gay black man named to fed’l bench

Citizens Metal, Barack Obama, gay news, Washington Blade

President Obama nominated a gay black judge to serve on federal court (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

After his earlier attempt at appointing a gay black male judge to the federal bench was thwarted by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), President Obama on Wednesday announced he’s making another effort with a different nominee in the same court.

Obama named Darrin Gayles, who currently serves as a Miami-Dade Circuit Judge in Florida, as part of a group of four nominees for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

“Throughout their careers, these distinguished men and women have demonstrated a steadfast commitment to public service,” Obama said in a statement. “I am confident they will serve the American people with distinction from the District Court bench.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Gayles would be the first gay black male to serve 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.)

Steven Thai, a spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute, praised Obama for nominating Gayles.

“We commend the administration for nominating a qualified jurist who will also add diversity to the federal bench,” Thai said. “If confirmed, Judge Gayles will be the nation’s first black, openly gay federal judge, and he will reflect the talent and commitment that exists in communities that are underrepresented in public service.”

According to a White House bio, Gayles has served as a circuit judge in Florida state court since 2011. He was among the candidates endorsed by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund in 2012.

Before that, Gayles was a county judge since 2004. He’s also served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, an assistant district counsel at the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service and an assistant state attorney.

Gayles received his law degree in 1993 from George Washington University Law School and his bachelor’s degree in 1990 from Howard University.

In November 2012, Obama made an attempt to appoint a gay black judge to the federal judiciary by naming Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas to federal court in Florida, but the nomination never even saw a hearing.

Rubio, who had initially recommended the Thomas nomination, refused to hand in his “blue slip” as one of his home-state senators to start the process of confirmation, objecting to Thomas’ temperament when presiding over two different cases.

Although lawyers involved in the case said he acted appropriately, Rubio refused to allow the nominee to proceed. At the start of the year, Obama didn’t include Thomas’ name among the 200 nominees that were renamed, and the White House said Thomas wouldn’t be named again.

In a statement, Rubio said he’s happy with each of the four judicial nominees that Obama named on Wednesday, which would include Gayles, but said he wished the White House would have acted in more bipartisan manner.

“I welcome today’s four nominations to the district courts in Florida,” Rubio said. “As I previously indicated to the president, I do not anticipate having an objection to moving forward on any of these nominations pending the outcome of the customary background check conducted on every nominee. I am disappointed, however that given the opportunity to fill four vacancies on the court, the White House has declined to nominate any of the Republican finalists jointly suggested by Sen. Nelson and myself.”

Alex Conant, a Rubio spokesperson, said Gayles was on a list of potential nominees that Rubio’s office told the White House would be acceptable.

Ryan Brown, a spokesperson for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), said Gayles was among the potential nominees the Florida Democrat sent to the president.

Obama has also named Staci Michelle Yandle, a black lesbian, for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. Her nomination is pending before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

D’Arcy Kemnitz, president of the LGBT Bar Association, said Gayles’ nomination “deserves prompt consideration” by the Senate.

“Darrin Gayles is admired and well-respected throughout the profession,” Kemnitz said. “Our judiciary should never be politicized, and any attempt to delay or derail his nomination because of animus or discriminatory political views would be unacceptable.”

05
Feb
2014

DNC names gay operative as nat’l political director

Raul Alvillar was named national political director for the DNC. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

Raul Alvillar was named national political director for the DNC. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

The Democratic National Committee announced on Wednesday that it has selected a gay political operative as its national political director just ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections.

Raul Alvillar, who has worked in the White House for Vice President Joseph Biden, was named to the position by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

In a statement, Wasserman Schultz said Alvillar brings to the DNC more than a decade of experience on campaigns — both in the private sector and in government.

“His work on everything from legislative outreach to campaigns and LGBT advocacy will be an asset to Democrats at every level,” Wasserman Schultz said. “Together, with the rest of the team at the DNC, we’ll be able to support the President’s legislative agenda and elect Democrats up and down the ballot in 2014 and beyond.”

News of the appointment was made shortly after the DNC winter meeting over the weekend in which Wasserman Schultz announced plans for a lesbian leadership council to boost the leadership role of lesbians within the party.

Alvillar said in the same statement reaching out to state parties and DNC members would be a priority for him during his tenure.

“I am excited to join the DNC and get to work electing and reelecting Democrats across the country,” Alvillar said. “I look forward to working with our state parties and DNC members to make certain we are providing them the tools they need to ensure that the Democratic Party thrives at all levels.”

Among the roles that Alvillar held before his appointment to DNC is serving as interim LGBT liaison at the White House in 2011 after former liaison Brian Bond departed, but before present-day liaison Gautam Raghavan came on board.

Alvillar also served as a senior adviser to Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Shaun Donovan and associate director at the Office of Public Engagement for the White House Office of the Vice President. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Alvillar was western political director for Obama and assisted with LGBT outreach and LGBT super delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

According to a bio provided by the DNC, Alvillar was deputy national political director for John Kerry’s Keeping America’s Promise PAC and political director and regional field director for Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), chair of the House Democratic Caucus, heaped praise upon Alvillar following news of his appointment.

“Raul is a strong ally for Democrats everywhere and I’m proud to call him a friend,” Becerra said. “At a time when the stakes could not be higher for working families in America, I am confident that Raul brings the experience and dedication to promote the President’s agenda and propel Democrats to victory in November.”

Alvillar joins the DNC at a challenging time for the Democratic Party as support for President Obama remains in the 40-percentile range among Americans and political observers say Democrats may lose control of the Senate in the mid-term elections.

Steve Elmendorf, who’s gay and a Democratic lobbyist, called Alvillar “a real star in the Democratic world.”

“He worked for me during the Kerry for President Campaign and showed great skill and political judgment,” Elmendorf said. “The DNC is lucky to have him.”

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, also had good things to say about the DNC’s latest appointment.

“Raul brings a wealth of experience and a deep commitment to improving the lives of Americans,” Cole-Schwartz said. “We’re thrilled he’ll be putting his enormous talents to use at the DNC.”

05
Mar
2014

Lesbian judicial nominee sails through hearing

Lesbian judicial nominee Staci Yandle sailed through confirmation hearing (Screenshot via U.S. Senate).

Lesbian judicial nominee Staci Yandle sailed through confirmation hearing (Screenshot via U.S. Senate).

A lesbian judicial nominee to the federal bench sailed through her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, receiving only two questions that came from the U.S. senator who recommended her to the court.

Staci Michelle Yandle, whom President Obama nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in January, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of a group of five judicial nominees. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) presided over the hearing.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who recommended the Yandle nomination, reflected on her work as an attorney representing “the little guy,” saying that’s what he found attractive about her career.

But Durbin asked if she agrees with a statement from U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts that if the U.S. Constitution says the little guy wins, he wins, but if the Constitution says the big guy wins, he wins.

“I think his statement is absolutely correct,” Yandle replied. “And I think that’s the proper role of a district court judge. It would be certainly what I would value as well. Based on my years of experience, as you mentioned, senator, trying cases on behalf of plaintiffs, it has given me actually a keen appreciation for the importance of impartiality and judicial integrity.”

Durbin also asked her to comment on the Tenth Amendment, which affords powers not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution to the states. Yandle said she hasn’t engaged in analysis of that amendment, but would defer to Supreme Court precedent on the matter.

According to a bio provided by the White House, Yandle has served as a solo practitioner in southern Illinois since 2007, where she focused her practice on civil litigation in federal and state court. She received a rating of “unanimously qualified” from the American Bar Association.

In her introductory remarks, Yandle recognized both her mother and sister, who were present with her in the hearing room, as well as her deceased father, Robert Yandle, whom she says continues to serve as an inspiration.

If approved by the Senate, Yandle would be the first openly lesbian black judicial nominee to receive confirmation during the Obama administration. She’d also be the first openly LGBT person to serve on the federal bench in Illinois.

But Yandle wouldn’t be the first openly lesbian black person confirmed. That distinction belongs to Deborah Batts, who was confirmed to the federal court in New York during the Clinton administration.

Introducing Yandle prior to the questioning, Durbin noted the “historic” nature of her potential confirmation to the federal bench.

“In short, Staci Yandle’s confirmation marks another important milestone in the journey toward equality of opportunity for all Americans,” Durbin said.

12
Mar
2014

Rubio continues hold on 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 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.

26
Jul
2013

Gay U.S. ambassador to Australia marries partner

John Berry, Australia, Curtis Yee, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Ambassador to Australia John Berry (left) married his partner Curtis Yee (Photo courtesy Australian Marriage Equality).

The openly gay and newly confirmed U.S. ambassador to Australia married his partner in D.C. on Saturday in a ceremony that an Australian LGBT group is drawing attention to in its push to legalize marriage equality in that country.

John Berry, whom the Senate confirmed by voice vote last month to his post, married his partner of 17 years Curtis Yee at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in D.C.

According to a statement from the couple, attendees included Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell Music as well as family and close friends. Music was provided by Theodore Guerrant and soloist, Christian Hoff.

Prior to being U.S. ambassador to Australia, Berry was director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and considered the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Obama administration. He’s now the first openly gay person to serve as a U.S. ambassador to a G-20 nation.

Rodney Croome, national convener for Australian Marriage Equality, congratulated the newly-weds, but said the failure to recognize their union in Australia, where same-sex marriage isn’t legal, will be a source of embarrassment for the country.

“Sadly, they join hundreds of other same-sex couples whose overseas same-sex marriages aren’t recognised under Australian law,” Croome said. “It will be a source of deep embarrassment for many Australians that our law fails to respect the marriage of the chief representative of our closest friend and ally, the United States.”

During a debate earlier this month, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pledged to introduce a marriage equality bill within the first 100 days of the new government if its elected on Sept. 7.

“Within the first 100 days of a re-elected government, a bill would come from forth … to legalize marriage equality,” Rudd said. “We would, of course, on our side of politics, allow a conscience vote.”

In that same debate, Tony Abbott leader of the opposition party in Australia wouldn’t commit to a conscience vote, saying parliament had already determined the issue “decisively.

Croome commended Rudd for his commitment and said his opposition should make the same promise.

“Kevin Rudd’s commitment is a reminder not just that marriage equality is important, but that it is urgent,” Croome said. “This increases pressure on Tony Abbott to commit to a conscience vote so marriage equality can finally be passed.”

12
Aug
2013

Gay man sworn in as U.S. envoy to int’l security organization

Daniel Baer, State Department, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, gay news, Washington Blade

Daniel Baer is sworn in as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Washington Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

A gay man who’s worked as a State Department official on international LGBT issues was sworn in on Tuesday as the next U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe.

Daniel Baer was sworn into the Vienna-based position by Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, during a ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin room of the State Department as his partner, Brian Walsh, stood at his side.

“Working on advancing human rights and democracy around the world, is, among other things, supporting the efforts of people elsewhere to leverage the fundamental building blocks of our nation’s success — and working to uphold these principles at home is an ongoing project that demands constant work and reinforces the source of strength and comparative advantage in the world,” Baer said.

Baer, who until recently held the job now occupied by Zeya, said his time at the State Department has deepened his appreciation for those working overseas on human rights issues.

“The last few years traveling … have deepened my awe for how lucky I am to be an American,” Baer said. “Many was the time that my old boss … would lean over to me in the midst of some meeting with a less than democratic counterpart and say, ‘I’d rather have my talking points than his.’”

The OSCE was set up during the Cold War as a forum where the United States could raise human rights and security issues with countries aligned with the Soviet Union. It now serves as a pan-Atlantic forum for conversations on early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation.

Baer was nominated by President Obama as ambassador to the organization in June and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as ambassador with other openly gay nominees by voice vote last month.

Noting that the organization to which he was appointed could be considered obscure — especially after the fall of the Soviet Union — Baer maintained the importance of the organization and said it continues to have play a key role in maintaing dialogue between countries working toward a common goal.

“The OSCE was at its founding — and remains today — a unique regional security organization built on the empirically demonstrative truth that true security must be comprehensive, that security from violence and war, security from violations of human rights and denial of other freedoms, and economic and environmental security are distinct objectives, but they are not separable,” Baer said.

During his remarks, Baer choked up as he recalled wondering as a high school student whether he’d be able to achieve his career ambitions because of his sexual orientation.

“I remember a very sad and lonely junior and high school student in 1994 who wondered whether it was possible for him ever to be happy, and wondered whether it was worth going on,” Baer said. “Certainly, he would have been shocked to see today’s ceremony.”

In addition to his partner, among the dozens of attendees at the swearing-in were other employees in the State Department and members of Baer’s family, including his grandmother.

Introducing Baer, Zeya commended him for his work at the State Department to ensure freedom on the Internet overseas as well as for international LGBT rights.

“For Dan, the right to connect, the right to love and other fundamental human rights are not just ‘nice to do,’ but they’re ‘must haves’ for the sustainable advancement of U.S. national interests abroad,” Zeya said.

Additionally, Zeya credited Baer with helping to create the Global Equality Fund, a State Department-led initiative that assists programs advancing LGBT rights abroad, as well as work in assisting political prisoners in Burma.

Among the notables present during the ceremony were Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign; Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First; and Ukraine Ambassador to the United States Olexander Motsyk.

Baer wasn’t the only LGBT person to be sworn into a presidential appointment on Tuesday. Jeff Marootian, former director of LGBT outreach for the Democratic National Committee, was sworn in as the new White House liaison to the Department of Transportation.

11
Sep
2013

In first, Senate confirms out fed’l appeals judge

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.

24
Sep
2013

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.”

26
Sep
2013