The U.S. Senate today (March 15) approved the nomination of the first openly gay federal judge for California, Michael Fitzgerald of Los Angeles. The vote was 91 to 6, with three senators not voting, making Fitzgerald the fifth openly gay federal judge currently on the bench in the country.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted in November to recommend Fitzgerald’s confirmation to the U.S. District Court for Los Angeles. But the full Senate did not act on the appointment until March 15, due to an ongoing effort by Republicans to block many nominations and pieces of legislation supported by the president.
In his state of the union address last month, President Obama asked the Senate to give all judicial nominees an up-or-down-vote within 90 days. But, as The Hill newspaper has reported, some Republican senators have continued to exercise their power to block nominations for a whole host of reasons —sometimes in retaliation for Democratic legislative advances, sometimes as a bargaining chip for a Republican-backed measure.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to break the blockade on 17 nominations Wednesday by calling for a cloture vote—a procedural vote that forces a matter to the floor. It requires 60 votes to pass and there would have to be one for each nomination. But instead, Reid and the Republican leadership —perhaps moved by recent clamor in the media about the emergency need to fill a record number of judicial vacancies—agreed to vote on 14 nominees. The agreement called for votes on two a week and Fitzgerald, one of the longest waiting nominees, was called up first.
In return, Democrats have agreed to take up a Republican-supported bill for small businesses.
U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sent out a press release Thursday afternoon praising the Senate for confirming Fitzgerald to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. She noted Fitzgerald is the first openly gay judge to be appointed to a federal judgeship in California.
Fitzgerald becomes the fifth openly gay judge in the country—along with Emily Hewitt and Deborah Batts, appointed by President Clinton, and Paul Oetken and Alison Nathan, appointed by President Obama.
The six votes against Fitzgerald’s confirmation—all Republican—were Roy Blunt of Missouri, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and David Vitter of Louisiana. Not voting were Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Mark Kirk of Illinois.
On a 95 to 2 vote, the Senate also approved the nomination of Gina Marie Groh to the U.S. District Court for West Virginia.
The Senate last October approved the nomination of openly lesbian attorney Alison Nathan to serve on the district court in Manhattan. That vote was 48 to 44. But an openly gay nominee to the federal appeals court, Edward DuMont, withdrew after it became clear his nomination would not be given an up-or-down vote.
Fitzgerald, 53, is a partner at the law firm of Corbin, Fitzgerald & Athey in Los Angeles. He has been fairly heavily involved in both gay and non-gay legal and political issues and contributed “hundreds of hours” doing pro bono work that led to the elimination of a gay ban on FBI agents in 1993.
The biographical information he sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee noted his membership in four gay-related organizations: the Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, the Harvard-Radcliffe Gay and Lesbian Caucus, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center Leadership Task Force, and the Stonewall Democratic Club. The biographical information also indicated Fitzgerald participated in the campaign to defeat California’s same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8.