Under President Obama, the number of openly LGBT federal judges skyrocketed.
Nearly two years into Trump’s first term, the president has nominated just one openly LGBT judge: Mary M. Rowland, who, as the Washington Blade reported, sailed through a “breezy confirmation hearing” earlier this week for a position on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
The White House noted in its announcement of Rowland’s nomination this June that the federal magistrate judge is “a member of the Gay and Lesbian Bar Association,” but has otherwise made no mention of the precedent—and did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
Rowland’s nomination has excited LGBT rights groups, but has also caused a bit of head-scratching given how anti-LGBT Trump’s judicial picks have tended to be.
“The nomination of Judge Rowland is a refreshing break from the dozens of Trump judicial appointees with terrible records on LGBTQ equality,” Elliot Imse, senior director of communications for LGBTQ Victory Institute, told The Daily Beast. “Senators Durbin and Duckworth recommended Judge Rowland because of her impeccable credentials and her deep understanding that every decision she makes affects the lives of real people. It seems even the Trump administration couldn’t disagree.”
Still, President Trump would have a lot of catching up to do if he wanted to match the number of LGBT judges that his predecessor saw confirmed.
As ThinkProgress noted, President Obama had successfully nominated six gay and lesbian judges by the summer of 2013, increasing the total number of federal-level LGBT jurists sevenfold. And as law professor Carl Tobias noted in a recent article for the Washington University Law Review, Obama went on to nominate even more LGBT judges. By the end of his second term, eleven LGBT judges had been confirmed altogether, as an archived White House website shows.
But it seems more likely that Rowland will be an outlier among Trump’s other judicial picks, one of whom has said that transgender children were part of “Satan’s plan,” as The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson previously noted.
As Tobias wrote, the Trump administration has shown a “demonstrated disinterest in recruiting, examine, interviewing and proposing superb LGBTQ possibilities.”
Indeed, even as LGBT advocacy organizations remain concerned about executive-level actions like the rescinding of Obama-era restroom guidance for transgender students or the attempted transgender troop ban, it’s already clear that the Trump administration’s most lasting anti-LGBT legacy will be a slew of judges with homophobic and transphobic track records.
These judicial nominations are coming at a particularly crucial moment, too. In the aftermath of the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, several LGBT rights battles are being fought in the courts simultaneously—around issues like restroom use, employment discrimination, and religious refusals for wedding services.
A lack of LGBT judges—and indeed, the presence of markedly anti-LGBT judges—will only complicate those fights.
As Tobias observed in his article, correcting the paucity of LGBT people on the federal bench isn’t just about boosting representation within the judiciary itself, it’s also about ensuring the justice system treats LGBT Americans fairly.
“[The Trump administration’s] negligible attention to improving LGBTQ judicial diversity constitutes a real lost opportunity for expanding the justice which parties deserve and courts supply,” Tobias wrote. “Increased representation enhances opinions with incisive perspectives, ends or constricts biases which undermine justice, and improves confidence that jurists will address litigants fairly.”
It’s clear that Rowland herself has strong credentials.
As the White House noted in its June announcement, she has been a federal magistrate judge since 2012, having worked long tenures for both a Chicago law firm and the Chicago office of the Federal Defender prior to that.
Her confirmation hearing, as the Blade reported, was a cake-walk with even Republican senators asking her “softball questions.”
And even though both Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rowland herself made reference to Rowland’s wife during the confirmation hearings, as the Blade noted, she was never asked to address any LGBT-related topics, including her own sexual orientation.
Contrary to the White House’s June announcement, Rowland is not a member of the “Gay and Lesbian Bar Association”—in fact, a national organization by that name does not exist—but a member of the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Chicago, which did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment on the hearing.
D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association—formerly known as the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association—told The Daily Beast that Rowland “is not known to the National LGBT Bar Association” but celebrated Rowland being an openly LGBT judge.
“It is wonderful that she is openly and proudly out,” Kemnitz told The Daily Beast. “Visibility of the LGBT community, especially in the courts, is vitally important. A good judge is fair and open-minded. We hope that her life experiences as a lesbian inform her understanding of equality under the law.”