A Tribute to Deborah Batts, First Out Federal Judge

“Lets kill all the lawyers,” Shakespeare says in “Henry VI.”

It’s easy to bash lawyers! A non-lawyer, I’m shy among lawyers at a party. Reading about court rulings, it’s hard to visualize judges as human beings rather than as gods.

But if you’re queer, you know how vital lawyers have been to protecting the rights of our community and other marginalized groups. That, due to homophobia and transphobia, LGBTQ folks have had difficulty breaking into the legal profession.

Few people were more human and humane that Deborah A. Batts, the first openly gay or lesbian judge to sit on the federal bench. Batts died on Feb. 3 at age 72 at her Manhattan home from complications after knee replacement surgery.

Batts was the first African-American faculty member at Fordham Law School. After being appointed to the bench, she continued to teach at Fordham.

Batts is survived by her wife, Dr. Gwen Zornberg, and her children, Alexandra S. McCown and James Ellison McCown. Batts and Dr. Zornberg were married in 201l.

On June 23, 1994, during Gay Pride Week, Batts was sworn in, The New York Times reported in its obituary of Batts.

In the early 90s, she applied to be a federal judge. Her application went nowhere under the George H.W. Bush administration. Her idea “of what a federal judge should be” differed from theirs, she said in a 2011 interview.

For 25 years, Batts served as a federal judge (on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York). When she was nominated to be a federal judge, her sexual orientation wasn’t a sticking point — even though Batts wasn’t closeted about being gay.

It’s hard to believe today, but Batts was confirmed by the Senate by a voice vote. “It was like having Jackie Robinson, putting him on the field and no one saying anything about it,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals told the American Bar Association Journal.

The fact that Batts sailed through her confirmation was “remarkable after several hundred years of an absolute barrier,” he added.

One of the most well-known cases over which Batts presided was the Central Park Five civil case. This case involved black teenagers who were wrongly convicted of and incarcerated for the 1989 beating and murder of a white woman. The defendants filed a lawsuit against New York City. In 2007, Batts ruled against New York when it tried to have the suit dismissed.

Batts ruled over cases on issues from terrorism to corruption. She was scheduled to preside over the trial of Michael Avenatti, the lawyer accused of embezzling $300,000 from a former client, porn star Stormy Daniels.

It’s hard to overstate how much of a pioneer Batts was. J. Paul Oetken, the second openly gay federal judge wasn’t appointed until 2011.

In May, three other openly LGBTQ judges spoke at an event to commemorate Batts’s work. “There was this lone wolf sitting up here in the Southern District of New York, and I can’t tell you – I can’t tell you how happy I was when I got company.”

Batts was “a giant of the legal community who blazed new trails for justice and equality,” tweeted Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David.

Sometimes it’s difficult to be out without having our queerness become the only thing that folks see in us. Batts was out. Yet, she didn’t want people to think of her as the “gay judge.”

“I’m a mother, I’m an African American. I’m a lesbian,” she said in an interview with the New York Law Journal.

Batts retired from the federal bench in 2012. But she didn’t stop working. Until the end of her life, she worked with RISE, a Southern District program that works to keep former offenders from going back to prison.

Thank you for being a trailblazer for all of us, Judge Batts. R.I.P.

Deborah Batts died on Feb. 3, 2020 at the age of 72. Story courtesy of the Washington Blade.