Senate committee advances one gay court nominee

The Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, April 7, voted unanimously by voice vote to recommend to the full Senate the nomination of openly gay attorney Paul Oetken to a seat on the U.S. District Court for Southern New York.

The committee did not discuss Oetken’s nomination either this week or last week, when it first came up for a vote. Last week’s vote was postponed at the request of Republicans on the Committee.

The Committee also voted by unanimous voice vote to recommend to the full Senate three other district court nominees, including Paul Engelmayer, who—like Oetken—has been nominated to serve on the U.S. District Court for Manhattan. On paper and during his confirmation hearing, Engelmayer was questioned by the Committee about his support, as a pro bono attorney, for same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses in New York. Engelmayer said he understands the difference between being an advocate and being a judge.

Before taking up the Oetken and other nominations, the Committee discussed at length the nomination of progressive law professor Goodwin Liu to serve on the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals bench. The Committee, voting along party lines, recommended Liu’s nomination to the full Senate also.

Thursday’s vote was its third on the Liu nomination. On both occasions previously, the nomination was never taken up on the Senate floor, reportedly due to Republicans exercising their right to put a hold on the vote.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) vigorously defended Liu as a “moderate liberal” and said his writings have not warranted the sort of criticism they have received by some Committee members.

Interestingly, Republicans on the Committee, who were again critical of Liu Thursday, said nothing specifically of his alleged support for same-sex marriage.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he would not support Liu’s nomination because he would try to “promote his own progressive views” on the bench. Sessions and other Republicans had grilled Liu repeatedly about the issue during earlier meetings.

Liu’s articles and briefs around California’s Proposition 8 have been interpreted by some as supporting recognition of same-sex marriage. But Liu said during his confirmation hearings that those papers had been mischaracterized.

“Despite whatever other views I might have had about Proposition 8 on the merits – my personal views, whatever, and even my legal views of the past,” said Liu, during a confirmation hearing last April. “I testified before [a California legislative] committee that the California Supreme Court should uphold that proposition in deference to the democratic process.”

In addition to Oetken, there are two other openly gay nominees whose names are awaiting action. Edward DuMont was nominated to the Federal Circuit appeals court bench in April 2010. He has not yet received a confirmation hearing and a spokesperson for the committee has indicated Republicans are holding up the hearing, saying they need more time to review his qualifications. Lesbian attorney Alison Nathan was nominated by President Obama March 31 to serve on the U.S. District Court for Southern New York.

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