Senate Unanimously Confirms First Openly Gay Federal Appeals Court Judge


gavelAfter a Senate vote of 98-0, Todd Hughes will become the first openly gay man to serve on a U.S. federal appeals court — the last level of appeal short of the U.S. Supreme Court.

As the Washington Blade reports, the landmark vote took place with little fanfare Tuesday morning, in a roll call vote in which debate focused on the squeezed courts budget and impending government shutdown, without mention of the new mark of judicial diversity they were about to achieve.

White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler wrote for the White House blog, “Like all of the President’s judicial nominees, Hughes has the intellect, experience, integrity, and temperament to be a successful judge. He is also gay.” Hughes is a graduate of Duke Law School and a longtime Department of Justice lawyer, most recently serving as deputy director of the DOJ’s Commercial Litigation Branch.

Hughes is the latest mark of President Obama’s efforts to diversify the federal bench. Obama added many other openly gay judges to the federal trial courts. He more than doubled the number of African American federal judges. And he nominated all four Asian Americans who are now active on the federal appeals courts. But as often as he has succeeded, his efforts have been met with resistance and obstruction.

While Republican obstruction of President Obama’s judicial nominees was widespread, it particularly burdened minority nominees. A People for American Way study in 2011 found that those judicial nominees who faced party-line Republican opposition were all people of color and women. And Obama’s first attempt to nominate an openly gay man to a federal appeals court was thwarted by 18 months of Senate obstruction, until Edward DuMont finally withdrew his nomination. Another nominee who would be the first openly gay black man on the federal bench is now facing opposition from his own home-state senator, Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Obama’s perseverance in putting forth another candidate yielded one victory Tuesday. However, the court where Hughes will sit hears a specialized subset of cases that includes many patent cases and other types of federal claims. While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit covers many critical areas, including federal Indian law and takings claims, many of the people-centered cases that could particularly benefit from diverse perspectives — from discrimination and criminal cases to workplace violations and challenges to statutes — go before the courts of general jurisdiction, which still have no openly gay judges to hear appeals.