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Biden Nominates Lesbian Women to Federal Appeals Court

When Congress returns after Labor Day, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will soon begin deliberation of the first nomination of an LGBTQ person to serve on a federal appeals circuit court bench.

President Biden this month nominated two LGBTQ people to serve on federal court benches: Beth Robinson of Vermont to the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and Charlotte Sweeney of Denver to the U.S. District Court for Colorado. Both are historic.

In an August 5 news release announcing the appointments, the White House noted that Robinson is the first openly LGBT member of the Vermont Supreme Court and, if confirmed, will become the “first openly LGBTQ woman to serve on any federal circuit court.” The release noted that Sweeney, if confirmed, would become the first openly LGBTQ judge in Colorado and the first openly LGBTQ woman to serve as a federal district court judge in any state west of the Mississippi.

“These choices also continue to fulfill the President’s promise to ensure that the nation’s courts reflect the diversity that is one of our greatest assets as a country — both in terms of personal and professional backgrounds,” said the news release.

Prior to joining the Vermont Supreme Court in 2012, Robinson played a key role in the litigation and organization surrounding the historic achievement of the nation’s first civil unions law in Vermont in 2000 and the legislature’s passage of marriage equality nine years later. She then became chief legal counsel to then Vermont Governor Pete Shumlin, a Democrat, who nominated her to the state’s highest court.

Vermont’s current governor, Phil Scott, a Republican, issued a statement, calling Robinson “a steadfast public servant for the people of Vermont” and said she has “served admirably on the Vermont Supreme Court.”

“She will make a great addition to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, bringing the Vermont values of commitment to justice and equality, fairness, and Freedom & Unity to the bench,” said Scott. “I applaud the President for making this historic nomination, and I urge the United States Senate to move expeditiously towards her confirmation.”

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), former chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee and the Senate’s current president pro tempore, praised Robinson, saying she “helped Vermont — and America — more fully realize the meaning of equality under the law.”

“As a civil litigator specializing in constitutional law and LGBTQ rights, Beth served as co-counsel the Baker v. State of Vermont lawsuit, in which the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state’s prohibition on same-sex marriage denied equal rights guaranteed by the Vermont Constitution,” noted Leahy in a statement. “Beth’s success in the Bakercase directly resulted in Vermont’s enactment of the first civil union law in America.” As a state supreme court justice, Robinson, said Leahy, “has been widely praised as a consensus builder who is impartial and deeply dedicated to the fair application of the law.”

Last year, USA Today named Robinson as one of Vermont’s top 10 women in Vermont to make contributions to the state.

Robinson, 56, is married to medical doctor Kim Boyman.

GLAD civil rights project director Mary Bonauto issued a statement saying she was “thrilled” with Robinson’s nomination, saying Robinson has a “deep commitment to the rule of law and to the principle of equal justice under law for all who come before the court….”

“That her confirmation would make her the first openly lesbian judge to serve on a U.S. appellate court further marks a pivotal moment for our country, one that hopefully signals a welcome expansion of wider representation and diversity of perspectives on our nation’s high courts,” said Bonauto.

Sweeney is a partner in a Denver firm that specializes in cases involving employment discrimination. She helped establish the state’s Equal Pay for Equal Work law and was active in the Colorado Bar Association’s leadership. She serves as treasurer of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

President Obama appointed the first openly LGBTQ person to a federal appeals court seat: Todd Hughes, to the U.S. Circuit Court for the Federal Circuit. The Senate confirmed his appointment on a 98 to 0 vote. The Federal Circuit Court is one of the nation’s 13 federal appeals circuit courts. While 12 of those have a specific geographical jurisdiction, the Federal Circuit addresses disputes involving international trade, government contracts, and federal personnel, among other things.

In March, President Biden promoted Elaine Kaplan to become Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. She has been serving on the court since 2013, when President Obama appointed her. The Federal Claims court addresses cases involving lawsuits against the federal government involving such matters as tax refunds, federal contracts, and federal takings of private property.

The U.S. Senate so far this year has confirmed four circuit court judges nominated by Biden and five district court judges. Robinson is now one of three nominees pending appointment to federal appeals benches (two of them to the Second Circuit, which covers Connecticut, New York, and Vermont).

The Senate will return from its summer recess after Labor Day.