A Washington & Jefferson College graduate who grew up on welfare in Fayette County was in line to become the first openly gay black man to serve as a federal judge.
For now, though, the confirmation of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas in Florida has been halted, due to a policy in the U.S. Senate that requires both home state senators to approve a nominee.
Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, has withdrawn his support of Judge Thomas, citing concerns over the judge's actions in two criminal cases, the New York Times reported this week.
Florida's other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, approved the nomination this summer, and Sen. Rubio, too, had initially backed Judge Thomas as President Barack Obama's pick to serve as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, back when it was announced in November 2012.
Joseph DiSarro, chair of the W&J political science department, said he was "taken aback" by Mr. Rubio's recent withdrawal of support. Judge Thomas was one of Mr. DiSarro's students when he attended W&J, and the two have kept in touch, with Judge Thomas returning to the Washington, Pa., campus to mentor pre-law students.
"Will Thomas is the American dream, just like Marco Rubio," Mr. DiSarro said. "It really makes no sense to me why Rubio would go against him."
Mr. DiSarro, a Republican who said he sent letters in support of Judge Thomas' nomination to Pennsylvania's two senators shortly after his former student was nominated, called Mr. Rubio's withdrawal of support "a political matter."
Other groups, including a Miami-Dade County association for black lawyers, have urged Mr. Rubio to let the confirmation process proceed.
"Really, what we're advocating for is permitting the constitutional process of confirmation to proceed," said Yolanda Strader, the association's president. She's also a lawyer who has appeared before Judge Thomas and described him as "competent" and "hard-working," a jurist who is careful to ask lawyers to clarify if he does not understand their arguments.
"That's the sort of judge we need on the bench," she said.
Mr. Rubio, according to the New York Times story, is concerned about Judge Thomas' "fitness" for the federal bench, with a spokeswoman for the senator citing his actions in two criminal cases. In one involving sentencing in a hit-and-run, Mr. Rubio said Judge Thomas had been too lenient. In another, involving the rape and murder of a young woman in which all five defendants were convicted or pleaded guilty, Mr. Rubio questioned Judge Thomas's decision to keep out a confession.
As a student, and in his career, Judge Thomas has been "a very objective, fair-minded person," Mr. DiSarro said.
He started his life in Brownsville, Fayette County, the ninth of 10 children raised by a single mother. He grew up in public housing and arrived at W&J with a single suitcase and not even $20 in his pocket, according to a story the school posted on its website about its 1991 graduate.
At W&J, he joined the debate team, where he excelled, said Mary Elizabeth Yancosek Gamble, now the chairwoman of the communications department at Bethany College in West Virginia but then the W&J debate director.
"He always wanted to win, not because winning was so important, but because he wanted to be the best," she said of Judge Thomas, who received his law degree from Temple University in Philadelphia.
Mr. DiSarro said he spoke recently to Judge Thomas, and said his former student was disappointed but still wanted to be confirmed.
"There's one thing about Will Thomas -- he does not give up," Mr. DiSarro said. "If you look at where he came from, and to arrive at this point, this isn't a person that would quit or throw in the towel."
The W&J professor plans on writing a letter to Mr. Rubio, asking him to look more closely at Judge Thomas' record.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/