Chinh Le, a faculty member at Seton Hall Law School, won confirmation Wednesday as director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights after an outpouring of testimonials to rebut two Union County senators who complained his resume lacked evidence of commitment to gay rights.
The Civil Rights Commission voted 6-to-0 — with a member employed by the two senators abstaining — to approve Attorney General Anne Milgram’s nomination of Le to replace Acting Director C. Carlos Bellido.
Le, 34, who was assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund for five years and an associate in a big New York firm for two, is an experienced civil rights litigator and has written extensively about school desegregation. It is the kind of resume that seems tailored for running a civil rights agency.
But the day before the confirmation vote, Democratic Sens. Raymond Lesniak and Nicholas Scutari said in a letter to the commission that Milgram had disregarded the rights of gays in nominating Le.
“Mr. Le has either done no advocacy on gay issues or he deems them not important enough to mention in his profile,” the senators said.
The previous director of the agency, Frank Vespa-Papaleo, is openly gay and well regarded in the gay community. He won high marks for supporting a lesbian couple’s discrimination suit against the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association for refusing to let them use a pavillion for a civil union ceremony.
Echoing the senators, Steven Goldstein, a leading gay advocate in the state, said, “Mr. Le has been nominated for a position in which he has incredibly big shoes to fill. We have no indication that Mr. Le could or could not fill those shoes, but he is at least to my community a complete unknown.”
The senators also criticized Milgram for not picking a lawyer admitted in New Jersey. Le, who moved to Jersey City from New York on July 1 at Milgram’s request after she decided to put his name forward, is admitted in New York only.
“There are how many lawyers are in New Jersey: 60,000?” Scutari said in an interview Wednesday. “Isn’t there even one who is qualified to be director of the Civil Rights Division?”
In the end, the criticism had no affect on the vote. Yet the stir did cause some last-minute work by Milgram, Le and even Le’s wife, Vanita Gupta, a staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.
They were on the telephone Wednesday morning asking supporters to come to the commission meeting to attest to Le’s sensitivity to gay issues.
By 3:30 p.m., when the commission convened in its small conference room in Newark, the audience was packed with Le supporters. Like Carmelyn Malalis, chair of the committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender of the New York City Bar Association.
“New Jersey couldn’t have a better director of civil rights when it comes to these issues than Chihn,” she told the commission.
Ken Choe, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, said, “I can tell you based on my own personal knowledge that Mr. Le has a record of support for these issues.”
After hearing these words of support, Le said he felt like the hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who in the end was saved by the townspeople rushing forward to help him.
In her remarks to the board, Milgram mentioned gay-rights cases Le had worked on. And though she didn’t mention the senators, she said Goldstein and leaders of other organizations were invited to talk about the appointment before Le’s name was made public, “and no one came in to have that conversation.”
She said Le’s nonadmission to the bar in New Jersey is not important because as director he won’t be going to court. Deputy attorneys general handle litigation for the division. What’s important, she said, is that “we went out to look for a national leader,” and that’s what Le is, she said. She said there were other candidates but she declined to name them.
Even before the meeting, Commission Chairwoman Joan Rivitz said the panel was enthusiastic about Le and that she was impressed with his ideas and experience.
But before the vote, member Clara Fernandez tried a parliamentary maneuver to delay the balloting. She said that although Le had made himself available to individual commission members, there had been no meeting of the panel to discuss the appointment and that an executive session should be held to talk things over.
Fernandez is employed as constituent relations director to New Jersey’s 20th Legislative District, where Lesniak is based.
Commission member Salena Carroll, who is domestic preparedness planner for the Office of Emergency Management in Union County, seconded Fernandez motion, but none of the other five members voted for it.
So the vote on the nomination was taken and it passed 6 to 0, with Carroll voting yes and Fernandez abstaining. Afterward, Fernandez said her attempt to delay the vote wasn’t prompted by the senators.
Among the yea-sayers was John Campbell, co-founder of Gay and Lesbian Political Action and Support and a member of the advisory board of the New Jersey Human Relations Council.
Campbell said before the meeting that he had been concerned about Le’s association with the NAACP because of the black civil rights organization’s longtime reluctance to endorse gay-marriage legislation in deference to church leaders who oppose such rites. But Campbell said his concerns were allayed after talking to Le. And he said he was willing to accept Milgram’s expertise in picking a director.
Le came to the United States as a one-year-old in a family that escaped Saigon the day before it fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.
He graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law in 2000 and clerked for Judge Walter Stapleton of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the Legal Defense and Education Fund from 2001 to 2006, he litigated cases on educational equality, school desegregation, voting rights and affirmative action.
He was an associate at Jenner & Block in New York from 2007 to April 2008, when he joined Seton Hall Law School’s Center for Social Justice in Newark, where he has supervised students in the civil litigation clinic.
“Although there have been some questions raised in recent days about my commitment to LGBT rights, let me be clear,” he told the commission before the vote. “I am personally committed to these issues.”
And he said afterward that he would probably take the state bar exam to gain admission to practice in New Jersey.