Judge Darrin P. Gayles
Judge Darrin P. Gayles (J. Albert Diaz)

When U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio torpedoed Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas’s nomination to the federal bench, some in South Florida’s legal community cried foul, saying it was because Thomas was gay.

But President Barack Obama simply tapped another gay black judge—from the very same judicial circuit: Darrin P. Gayles.

“We call that a deep bench. It shows that qualified black gay lawyers are all around us and have become a force in our legal community,” said attorney Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, a partner at Duane Morris and former president of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rubio did not object to Gayles’ nomination, and he was confirmed 98-0 to become the first African-American, openly gay man to become a federal district judge. Gayles has declined interviews, but his place in history is hard to ignore.

Over the last six years, Obama has brought 10 openly gay judges to the judiciary: Gayles, Staci Michelle Yandle, Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro, Alison Nathan, Paul Oetken, Michael Fitzgerald, Michael McShane, Judith Levy and Pamela Chen to district courts and Todd Hughes to the federal circuit bench.

And in Texas, U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman is the state’s first openly gay nominee for the federal bench with the support of another rumored Republican presidential hopeful, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, in what is considered a noncontroversial pick.

Thomas nomination

Thomas was vetted by a federal nominating committee and both Florida U.S. senators, Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson. But Rubio got cold feet afterward when he was being shunned by Tea Party conservatives for his stance on immigration reform.

Rubio declined to submit a blue slip to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a parliamentary procedure required for a vote on Thomas. Rubio pointed to sentencing hearings in two criminal cases handled by Thomas as the reason to question his judicial temperament. In one case, the judge teared up as he recounted the horrific gang rape and murder of 18-year-old Ana Maria Angel. He sentenced the defendant to death.

The reaction was swift in some legal circles against Rubio. Letter-writing campaigns and protests were held demanding Rubio submit a blue slip to allow a vote on Thomas. Attorneys involved in both criminal cases cited by Rubio came out publicly against his position. A headline in a column in the Miami Herald read, “Sen. Marco Rubio stomps on gay Judge Thomas’ reputation.”

Rubio, however, refused to budge on the blue slip. When Obama resubmitted his judicial nominees for the new calendar year in January, Thomas was conspicuously absent.

Obama nominated Gayles in February along with another Miami-Dade circuit judge, Beth Bloom, who have since been confirmed.

Coral Gables criminal defense attorney David Tucker was one of those vocally upset with Rubio’s treatment of the Thomas nomination. He collected more than 2,000 names on a petition submitted to Rubio on Thomas’ behalf saying the issue of sexual orientation is overblown.

‘already there’

“We have a very diverse bench in the Southern District, but at the end of the day we have a very well-qualified federal bench which should be the only criteria for sitting,” Tucker said.

The discussion about gay judges is akin to the debate about gays in the military, he said.

“They were already there. Same for the federal bench. I think it’s great that the Democrats finally figured out how to move judicial appointments through the system,” Tucker said. “The whole point of this for me is to not have a discussion of a candidate’s sexual identity as a criteria for selection to the bench. I’ve never had a client asked me about my sexual identity.”

Rodriguez-Taseff said the focus is understandable considering the momentous and historic occasion, but soon the judges will simply join their colleagues in carrying out justice. She said justice can only benefit from the number of minorities, women and gay judges Obama has added to the federal bench.

“The more diverse the judiciary, the more points of view can be taken into account, which ultimately means greater fairness,” she said.

Rubio’s support

Glenn Sugameli, a senior attorney with Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, closely follows Obama’s judicial nominees for the media. He said Rubio saw the writing on the wall when it came to Gayles.

“Notably, this was after Senator Rubio was condemned by Floridians and dozens of Florida editorials boards and commentators, he said.

How important was Gayles’ sexuality to the Senate Judiciary Committee? Cruz and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, submitted separate questionnaires to Gayles and not a single question broached the subject.

Instead, they asked Gayles, among other subjects, his thoughts about interpreting the Constitution, state sovereignty, temperament and what was the most important quality in a judge.

Gayles response: “Integrity.”

The issue also wasn’t broached by Gayles when he was profiled by the Daily Business Review in February 2013. The graduate of George Washington University law school spoke about, as a young man, wanting to be a Capitol Hill staffer, not a lawyer.

Gayles also spoke about how his appointment by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2011 to the circuit bench was more than just him holding court and hearing cases.

“I think my presence is important, particularly in the African-American community,” he said. “One of the things I didn’t have growing up was professional role models. … And sometimes I know it takes simply me being there, whether it’s at a school or some kind of civic event, for that young person to say, ‘This is something I can do and achieve.’ “

And now, Gayles is also a role model for the gay community.

Equality Florida greeted his confirmation June 16 as “cause for all fair-minded Floridians to celebrate” and a “sign of the progress we’ve made as a society.”

“There was a time when racism and homophobia would have prevented the best candidate from being appointed,” said Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith.