WASHINGTON -- When the Senate voted 98-0 on Tuesday to confirm Justice Department attorney Todd Hughes for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, it didn't just put another one of President Barack Obama's judicial nominees on the federal bench: It seated the first openly gay federal circuit judge in history.
Judge Hughes, who has served as deputy director of the commercial litigation branch of the Justice Department's civil division since 2007, has specialized in the kinds of issues that come up before the bench on which he will soon sit. Unlike the other 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals, the Federal Circuit specializes in a handful of designated issues including international trade, government contracts, patents, trademarks, veterans' benefits and public safety officers' benefits claims. Judge Hughes could not be reached for a comment.
After the vote, White House counsel Kathryn Reummler published a blog post celebrating the confirmation as "yet another 'first' among President Obama's judges."
"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," she wrote, adding that under Mr. Obama, Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian-Americans have also broken barriers in the federal judiciary. "We look forward to the 'seconds' and 'thirds' who will come after Todd Hughes and his fellow 'firsts' currently serving on our courts."
Geovette Washington, who is the Office of Management and Budget's general counsel and has been friends with Judge Hughes since they attended law school together, described him as "a problem solver" who "can do very complicated constitutional issues," but also brings a degree of pragmatism to cases. "I have always been amazed by how intelligent he is, but also how practical he is," she said, adding that Judge Hughes is well prepared for the Federal Circuit because he has appeared before it so many times. "He's dug in and done the hard work on those issues."
Ms. Washington, who bonded with Judge Hughes during Duke University basketball games, said he has always been open about his sexual orientation but has not been defined by it. "I wouldn't call him an activist," she said. "It's part of who he is."
Seven openly gay judges have already been confirmed to serve on district courts, which rank one level below the circuit courts. The first, Deborah Batts in the Southern District of New York, took senior status in April 2012, and the remaining six were all appointed by Mr. Obama.
"Judge Hughes is an eminently qualified nominee who just happens to shatter a barrier as the first openly gay federal appellate court judge," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. "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."
Judge Hughes, a Delaware, Ohio native, received his A.B. from Harvard College and earned both a law degree and a master's degree in English at Duke. His nomination was not controversial.
The Obama administration has managed to win Senate approval for six openly gay nominees so far this term, five of them on July 30. The group included four ambassadors -- Dan Baer as ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, John Berry as ambassador to Australia, Rufus Gifford as ambassador to Denmark and James Costos as ambassador to Spain -- along with Stuart Delery as assistant attorney general for the Civil Division. The sixth was Elaine Kaplan, as a judge on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The president has also appointed 13 openly gay officials this year who did not require Senate confirmation, according to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which has recommended a total of 195 candidates to the administration this term.
There are still 13 of the president's judicial nominees pending on the Senate floor: two nominees for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and 11 district court nominees. The group of remaining nominees includes nine women and four African-Americans.
While Judge Hughes' nomination has not been a heavy lift, one of Mr. Obama's other gay judicial nominees, Miami Judge William Thomas, ran into trouble this week. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., withdrew his support for Judge Thomas' appointment to the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida, saying he had issues with two of his decisions in criminal cases. Without support from both of his home-state senators, Judge Thomas -- who would have been the first openly gay black judge on the federal bench -- will not move forward.