Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas (J. Albert Diaz)
Attorneys and lawmakers expressed outrage and disappointment Wednesday that the White House withdrew the federal judicial nomination of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas, who is black and openly gay.
The nomination was blocked by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican. Thomas, who was nominated in November 2012, was the only one of 54 pending judicial candidates not renominated by the Obama administration this week. There are currently 89 vacancies on the federal district and appellate courts. Black judges currently make up 8.3 percent of the federal judiciary.
Thomas was on the bench Wednesday and did not return a call for comment by deadline.
Rubio initially supported Thomas after interviewing him for an open federal bench position in the Southern District of Florida but reversed himself last summer.
“The message that it sends is chilling and shocking, not only to the gay community but to the black community, that Senator Rubio and the Tea Party have such power that they would be able to block a qualified black gay judge with one voice,” said attorney C. Chad Cronon, president of the Central Florida Gay and Lesbian Association in Orlando.
Miami attorney Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, a member of Duane Morris’ national diversity and inclusion committee, said, “This is another example of the fact we are permitting extreme and discriminatory views to color how we select judges.” She said she was discouraged and troubled that the Obama administration is “caving on an issue of such importance, which is the independence of the judiciary and the right of people to have their sexual orientation protected.”
Rubio cited two criminal cases handled by Thomas even though prosecutors in both cases urged him to support Thomas.
Rubio stalled Thomas’ nomination by refusing to submit a blue slip to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would have allowed a vote. Rubio was not persuaded by a letter-writing and petition campaign on behalf of Thomas organized by South Florida attorneys.
Coral Gables criminal defense attorney David Tucker collected 2,148 signatures on an electronic petition supporting Thomas.
“We all get to ruminate on the politicization of the federal judicial nominating process,” he said. “This is a tragedy, and I’m sad that this not only happened but we allowed it to happen. Whatever happened to doing the right thing?”
Asked about Thomas, Rubio’s spokeswoman, Brooke Sammon, referred to a previous statement, saying, “The nomination of Judge Thomas has also been thoroughly reviewed, and Senator Rubio has determined that Thomas’s record on the state court raises serious concerns about his fitness for a lifetime federal appointment.”
Rubio questioned Thomas’ judicial temperament and willingness to impose appropriate criminal sentences. His office cited the sentencing of Michele Traverso, who received 22 months in prison followed by two years of house arrest for a hit-and-run accident that killed a bicyclist on Miami’s Rickenbacker Causeway. The senator also noted Thomas wept when he sentenced Joel Lebron to death for a 2002 gang rape.
Cronon said the criminal cases cited by Rubio are red herrings because any judge’s record could be culled for outliers, and Rubio has repeatedly proven he is no friend of the black and gay communities.
Rubio also withheld a blue slip for months on another black judicial nominee, Nassau Circuit Judge Brian Davis, who waited nearly two years for confirmation in December.
The Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. Bar Association, the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, the Haitian Lawyers Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a news conference last summer to call attention to Rubio’s opposition to both black judges.
Leigh-Ann Buchanan, president-elect of the Ferguson association, noted Wednesday that Thomas was found to be exceptionally qualified judge by the American Bar Association. “It’s unfortunate what happened in this circumstance,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., told the Huffington Post on Tuesday, “All of sudden for Senator Rubio to say Judge Thomas is not suitable is just not right.” She added, “I don’t know what more I can do to make Senator Rubio understand that what he is doing is wrong.”
New York attorney Joe Patrice with Lankler Siffert & Wohl wrote on the Above the Law blog that torpedoing Thomas should help Rubio with his base after a fallout over immigration reform.
“Senator Rubio is just clutching at straws to get back his conservative bona fides, tragically lost when he started pushing the controversial idea that everyone of Mexican descent shouldn’t be rounded up and exiled,” Patrice wrote. “Making a punching bag out of a black and gay judge is a healthy start to getting back all-important presidential primary voters.”