By Chris Hoenig
William Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida was one of more than 150 nominations held up by Congress last year. After the Senate invoked the so-called “nuclear option” that allowed it to approve these judicial nominations by simple majority vote, Thomaswho would have been the first openly gay Black federal judge in the countrywas left to watch as his name suddenly disappeared from the list.
It turns out that one manwho initially supported Thomas’ nominationis responsible.
Senator Marco Rubio, the Tea Partybacked Republican from Florida, forced the White House to withdraw Thomas’ nomination by using what are known as “blue slip” powers to block it. Under Senate rules, a nominee for a position as a federal judge is required to have the approval (or “blue slip”) of both senators in the district’s home state. Florida’s other senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, submitted his blue slip approving the nomination in July of last year.
While Rubio’s spokespeople say that the senator changed his mind because of Thomas’ judicial record, the president of Miami’s largest association for Black lawyers thinks that it has to do with his race and orientation. “As much as I would like to think that politics has nothing to do with this, it looks as if it does,” Yolanda Strader told The New York Times. “It would be unfair to prevent a well-qualified judicial nominee from proceeding with the nomination process because he is an openly gay Black male.”
The League of Prosecutors wrote a letter to Rubio supporting the nomination, while an online petition calling for Rubio to sign his blue slip and allow the confirmation to continue generated more than 2,000 signatures.
Rubio’s camp instead pointed to a case in which Thomas became emotional while handing down a death sentence to a defendant, questioning his fitness for the federal position. “Those concerns include questions about his judicial temperament and his willingness to impose appropriate criminal sentences,” a spokeswoman said. Rubio’s objections about sentences were based on a case last year in which Thomas sentenced Michele Traverso to less than two years in prison for a hit-and-run that killed a bicyclist.
Rubio believed the sentence for Traverso, who was in a court-sponsored cocaine-rehab program, was too lenient. Prosecutors in the case, who also wrote to Rubio supporting Thomas’ nomination, said it was a complicated case because Traverso didn’t turn himself in until a day after the accident. Although authorities believe the 26-year-old had been under the influence at the time of the crash, it was too late to determine his blood-alcohol level and he could only be charged with leaving the scene of an accident.
“I am upset and concerned. Senator Marco Rubio himself said that Judge Thomas had passed all the tests, and then all of sudden for Senator Rubio to say Judge Thomas is not suitable is just not right,” Democratic Florida U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson said Tuesday. “I don’t know what more I can do to make Senator Rubio understand that what he is doing is wrong.”
The lack of a confirmation has led to a “judicial emergency” because of the backlog of cases in the district.
Blocked Another Black Judge
This is not the first time that Rubio has changed his mind about a Black judge and a federal position in Florida.
After initially supporting the nomination of Brian Davishe even presented Davis at his confirmation hearing in May 2012Rubio withheld his blue slip on Davis’ appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. “It’s just to block a Presidential nominee. That’s it,” Democratic Ohio U.S. Representative and chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Marcia Fudge said. “To hurt the President as best they can, in any way they can. But it’s just too much.”
Rubio’s change of heart came after comments Davis made about two Black members of the Clinton administration came to light. Davis implied that former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and Dr. Henry Foster Jr. were railroaded because of their race.
After Davis sat in limbo for nearly two years, Rubio finally agreed to move forward with his confirmation after Davis wrote an apology letter late last year. He was confirmed during a marathon Senate session right before the holiday break.
“In Florida, we all have heavy hearts concerning the [Trayvon] Martin case,” Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown said. “But part of the problem is that we don’t feel that the judicial system is fair. Clearly it’s not fair. And you need people … to feel confident that we will take care to make sure that we have representation throughout the system.
“Basically, we don’t feel it in Florida,” Brown added, “and we need our senators to step up to the plate.”
The objections come at a time when Black judges are extremely underrepresented at the federal level, making up just over 8 percent of all federal judges. Of President Obama’s 33 judicial nominees, nearly one-third have been Black.