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Senate Confirms First Openly Gay Judge for Federal Circuit

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Unlike many of President Obama's other federal court nominees, Todd Hughes' nomination has proceeded smoothly.

On Tuesday, the federal judiciary crossed another important milestone as the Senate voted unanimously to confirm Todd Hughes to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Hughes’ confirmation makes him the first openly gay circuit judge.

Unlike other federal appeals courts, the Federal Circuit is a specialty court that focuses on a more limited caseload, including patent and trademark claims, federal personnel benefits claims, and veterans’ benefits. Hughes had served as deputy director in the civil division of the Department of Justice since 2007, where much of his practice focused on these areas.

Unlike many of President Obama’s other federal court nominees, Hughes’ nomination has proceeded smoothly. The president nominated Hughes in February, and after a hearing in mid-June, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the nomination, sending it to the Senate in July. “I am proud that today the Senate is finally taking this critical step to break down another barrier and increase diversity on our Federal bench,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said in a statement after Tuesday’s vote.

Hughes’ confirmation was celebrated by the Alliance for Justice, which tracks judicial nominations. “Today’s vote to confirm Todd Hughes marks another milestone in the long journey toward justice and equality,” Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron said in a statement. “Alliance for Justice long has fought for a federal judiciary that reflects the full diversity of America and a confirmation process that evaluates candidates based on their legal expertise, not how they look or who they love.”

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Hughes’ confirmation marks slow progress on President Obama’s judicial nominations, who have languished in the Senate throughout his presidency. To date, at least 11 nominations are still waiting for Senate confirmation, including Georgetown Law professor Nina Pillard.

Hughes may have enjoyed unanimous support in the Senate, but not all of President Obama’s other “out” nominees have fared as well. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) publicly withdrew his support for Florida district court nominee Judge William Thomas, an openly gay Black judge from Miami, after previously agreeing to advance his nomination. The switch is reportedly due to “serious concerns” about Judge Thomas’ fitness for the federal judiciary. The move effectively blocks Thomas’ nomination.

According to the New York Times, Rubio’s concerns are rooted in two criminal cases assigned to Thomas, despite the fact that Thomas enjoys wide support among members of the bar, including letters of support from prosecutors and an appellate judge involved in one of the criminal cases cited by Rubio in blocking the nomination.

If confirmed, Judge Thomas would have become the first openly gay Black man to serve on the federal bench.

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