Just One Senator Is Single-Handedly Preventing The First Gay Black Federal Judge From Being Confirmed


Judge William Thomas

Judge William Thomas

William Thomas is a county judge in Florida, where there have been more exonerated death row inmates than in any other state, the Stand Your Ground law yields racially discriminatory acquittals, and a mandatory minimum sentence sent Marissa Alexander to prison for 20 years for firing a warning shot during an incident with her abusive husband.

Thomas would become the first gay black male federal judge if confirmed by the Senate. But his own senator, Marco Rubio (R-FL) is opposing his nomination, suggesting he is not tough enough on crime. Rubio, who is facing backlash from Republicans for supporting immigration reform, says his objections are based on rulings by Thomas in two cases, the New York Times reports.

In one case, Rubio says Thomas sentenced defendant Michele Traverso too leniently for a fatal hit-and-run of a bicyclist. Even the lead prosecutor in the case stood behind Thomas’ sentence of 22.6 months in prison followed by two years on house arrest, saying Thomas conducted himself with “compassion and careful judgment.” Traverso was driving illegally and on probation from cocaine charges. But the case was complicated by several factors. Police were not able to measure his blood alcohol level and so could not charge him with driving under the influence — only leaving the scene of an accident. What’s more, Traverso’s lawyer told the court that he was to blame for Traverso not turning himself in until a day after the incident. Traverso suffers from a difficult-to-treat and potentially immunological disease that would pose challenges for a prison.

These factors — culpability, proportional punishment, and appropriate public health remedies — are all considerations that bipartisan coalitions of lawmakers have urged laws to incorporate as they work toward reform of overly harsh sentencing that has led to the U.S. epidemic of mass incarceration. What’s more, Traverso’s sentence was within the guidelines set for the only thing he was charged for — leaving the scene of the accident.

In the second case, Rubio is criticizing Thomas’ decision not to admit two defendants’ confessions into evidence in a murder case. Thomas found two of the five defendants had not been properly read their Miranda rights or had not understood them, as required by the Constitution — a decision that was partially upheld on appeal. Both defendants were nonetheless convicted, with one sentenced to death; the other, just 16 at the time of the incident, to life in prison.

Thomas’ ruling in this second case shows that judges can both enforce the law and punish those whose crimes are proved beyond a reasonable doubt without tainted evidence. But either Rubio didn’t get the memo that Republicans are abandoning the “tough-on-crime” message that more people in jail for longer means better public safety, or he is using these two rulings as an excuse to hold up an historically diverse nominee.

Thomas would add remarkable diversity to the federal bench in every possible sense. In addition to being black and openly gay, he was a public defender for years — an equally rare but important criteria in a pool of federal judges who most frequently have backgrounds as corporate attorneys or prosecutors. And because he was a defender in the federal system, Thomas is well prepared to navigate the federal court system.

But because of an antiquated Senate rule that Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has chosen to enforce, Rubio has the power to single-handedly veto federal judicial nominees from his home state, by refusing to submit what is known as a “blue slip” signaling his support. Without that slip, Leahy will not hold a hearing on Thomas’ nomination, and he is effectively stalled. The Center for American Progress is circulating a petition to pressure Rubio.