The federal courts play a pivotal role in the lives of gay and transgender Americans, often serving as the last resort in protecting LGBT rights. Right now, due to the large number of federal court judicial vacancies and a Senate that continues to obstruct qualified nominees, there are not enough judges to hear important cases. Current vacancies must be filled with judges who understand that the Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law for LGBT Americans.
- FEDERAL COURTS CAN ENSURE MARRIAGE EQUALITY: The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, effectively conveying over a thousand federal benefits and programs that were previously denied to gay and lesbian couples (United States v. Windsor). The high court also asked the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals to throw out an appeal seeking to uphold California’s Proposition 8, a decision that in effect allows gay and lesbian couples to legally marry in California (Hollingsworth v. Perry).
The federal district and appeals courts will continue to be essential in the fight for expanding the right to marry. Following Windsor, a lawsuit was filed in July 2013 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania challenging Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act and the state’s refusal to marry lesbian and gay couples or recognize out-of- state marriage. (Whitewood et. al. v. Corbett et. al.)
- FEDERAL COURTS CAN UPHOLD LGBT RIGHTS IN THE WORKPLACE: When employers discriminate against LGBT individuals, the federal courts are often the only recourse. For example, the Atlanta Police Department disqualified an HIV-positive man from a position as a police officer after learning of his medical condition. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia threw out the case but the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s ruling in February 2012 and sent the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. Following the 11th Circuit ruling, the police department settled, awarding the plaintiff $250,000.
The federal courts also stepped in to protect an LGBT worker’s rights in Georgia. The Georgia General Assembly fired a woman serving as its legislative editor after she told her supervisor that she planned to transition from male to female. In 2011, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the government violated the employee’s equal protection rights.
- FEDERAL COURTS CAN UPHOLD LGBT STUDENT RIGHTS:LGBT youth face harassment, bullying, and denial of equal treatment in public schools on almost a daily basis. For example, Charlie Pratt endured years of antigay bullying while at school. His principal refused to take action, telling Charlie to “tone it down.” Charlie, who was forced to withdraw from school, filed suit against the school district. The case is now pending before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.
In another case, school officials in 2010 canceled the high school prom at a Mississippi public school rather than let a student attend with her girlfriend. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi ruled that school officials violated the student’s rights and ordered the school to hold prom so she could attend with her girlfriend.
DIVERSITY IN THE JUDICIARY
A diverse federal bench improves the quality of justice and instills confidence that judges understand the real-world implications of their decisions. Openly gay individuals are not well represented in the federal judiciary, but that is beginning to change.
- Prior to Obama’s presidency, the only openly gay federal judge was Deborah Batts, an African American woman appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
- Six of President Obama’s openly gay nominees have been confirmed, including J. Paul Oetken, the first openly gay man on a federal court, and Pamela Chen, the first openly gay Asian American federal judge. Others included Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro, the first Latina lesbian on the federal bench, as well as Alison Nathan, Michael Fitzgerald and Michael McShane.
- President Obama has nominated twelve openly gay candidates to fill federal court vacancies, including William Thomas to be the first openly gay African American man on a federal court as well as Todd Hughes to the Federal Circuit, who would become the first openly gay judge on a federal appeals court. Both nominations are pending. President Obama nominated Edward DuMont in 2010 to serve on the Federal Circuit but DuMont withdrew after waiting for more than 18 months without even receiving a committee hearing.