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Senate confirms highest-ranking openly gay judge in the U.S. Tuesday

When the Senate voted 98-0 to confirm Justice Department attorney Todd M. Hughes for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit on Tuesday, it didn't  just put another one of President Obama's judicial nominees on the federal bench: It seated the first openly gay federal circuit judge in history.

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. 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 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 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 Hughes is well prepared for the Federal Circuit because he's appeared before it so many times. "He's dug in and done the hard work on those issues."

Washington, who bonded with Hughes during Duke 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 President 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, a 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."

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 University. His nomination is not controversial, so the Senate is likely to vote in favor by a wide margin.

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 Hughes nomination has not been a heavy lift, one of Obama's other gay judicial nominees, Miami judge William Thomas, ran into trouble this week. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) withdrew his support for Thomas’s appointment to the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Florida, saying he had issues of two of his decisions in criminal cases. Without the support of both of his home-state senators, Thomas--who would have been the first openly gay black judge on the federal bench--will not move forward.

Washington said that while she was pleased about the prospect of Hughes's confirmation she had just one concern: Hughes, who is unmarried and a talented cook, might have less time to devote to feeding his friends.

"I just hope his time on the bench won't mean he doesn't have time to cook meals for us," she said.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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