Obama Appointee Voted In As First Openly Gay Circuit Judge

Todd Hughes
Todd Hughes

The US Senate confirmed that they unanimously voted Todd Hughes as the first openly gay circuit judge for the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on September 24.

With a 98 to 0 vote, Hughes became the highest-ranking openly gay judge in the US; Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy called it 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 in a press release prior to the confirmation. “I’m proud the Senate has finally taken an historic step to break down another barrier and increase diversity in our federal bench.”

With Hughes’ confirmation, seven openly gay judicial nominees have been announced. An openly gay person assigned to an appellate-level court is unprecedented, as no previous administration has filled the spot. Obama nominated Hughes in February, after unsuccessfully nominating Edward Dumont to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in 2010.

“The first and foremost quality a federal judge should have is fidelity to the law,” Hughes said during his confirmation hearing on June 19. “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.”

His previous work involved working as a trial attorney for the Commercial Litigation Branch and as a deputy director for the Commercial Litigation Branch of the Civil Division at the Justice Department since 2007. He has an extensive background on veterans’ benefits, international trade, federal personnel law, government contracts and jurisdictional issues.

“Judge Hughes is an eminently qualified nominee who also happens to shatter a barrier as the first openly gay federal appellate court judge,” Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Cole-Schwartz said in a press release. “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.”

Other advocacy groups praised Hughes as The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary commented that he is “unanimously well qualified.”

“[His confirmation] is an important milestone for the LGBT legal profession,” LGBT Bar Association executive director D’Arcy Kemnitz said in a press release. “It also shows that Congress, and the country, want the best person for the job, regardless of sexual orientation. 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 Senate still needs to nominate around fifty judicial nominees, including William Thomas for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. If nominated, he would be the first openly gay black person for the federal bench.

Senator Marco Rubio has refused to return a blue slip to the Senate Judiciary Committee, thus holding up the proceedings.

“[Rubio’s] concerns include questions about [Hughes’] 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,” Rubio’s spokesperson Brooke Sammon said in a press conference. “After reviewing Thomas’s record, Senator Rubio cannot support moving forward with the nomination at this time.”

Aside from Thomas, other openly gay nominees still pending are James “Wally” Brewster Jr for the ambassador to the Dominican Republic and Chai Feldblum for a second term on the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.