Oetken LAW ’91 could be first openly gay federal judge

J. Paul Oetken LAW ’91, a Jan. 26 judicial nominee in Manhattan, is poised to become the first openly gay man to serve as a federal judge if appointed.

Oetken is currently the senior vice president and associate general counsel of Cablevision, a cable television company primarily serving customers on the eastern seaboard. He has a long history of federal service, previously serving as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun and attorney-advisor in the United States Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel. Oetken was recommended to replace Judge Denny Chin on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by New York Senator Charles E. Schumer.

According to the tradition of senatorial courtesy, the president consults the senior U.S. Senator of his political party — in this case, Schumer — before nominating someone to a federal position in that Senator’s state. Schumer praised the nominee’s distinguished career in a statement Jan. 26.

“My three criteria for judges are simple: excellence, diversity, and moderation and Mr. Oetken fits that description to a ‘T,’” Schumer said.

Schumer called Oetken a “strong advocate for the LGBT community” in his statement, citing Oetken’s support of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project as well as the amicus brief he co-authored in the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the sodomy law in Texas.

“The Texas Homosexual Conduct Law violates principles that are basic to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” stated the introduction to the amicus brief, which Oetken wrote with Chai R. Feldblum, a commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “[A]nimosity toward a group of people is not a legitimate purpose for governmental discrimination against such a group.”

Oetken’s nomination comes one year after another openly gay lawyer was passed over for nomination. Assistant United States Attorney Daniel S. Alter LAW ’91, the national director for civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League, told The New York Law Journal in October that his nomination was derailed because of false statements attributed to him. The Washington Blade reported that one such statement regarded the use of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Oetken and Edward C. DuMont ’83, who has been nominated to the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, are the only openly gay men with pending nominations to federal courts. DuMont is an alumnus of Morse College.

The Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate must approve the nomination before Oetken can be appointed.

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