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J. Paul Oetken Confirmed in NY as First Openly Gay Federal Judge

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on July 21, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

On Monday, J. Paul Oetken became the first openly gay man to be confirmed as a federal judge, approved by the Senate to preside over the Southern District of New York in Manhattan.

A graduate of Yale Law, Oetken clerked for Justice Blackmun prior to working at the Justice Department and then as associate counsel to President Clinton. He currently serves as a senior vice president at Cablevision.

Given his qualifications, it might seem curious that the media is focusing on his sexual orientation. But the fascination appears to be part of a larger question:

Where are all the gay judges?

While the makeup of the judiciary has for decades attracted a lot of attention in terms of women and racial and ethnic minorities, the emphasis placed on gay judges seems to be a more recent phenomenon.

However, J. Paul Oetken is not actually the first openly gay federal judge.

Judge Deborah Batts, also located in Manhattan, was appointed in 1994, according to the New York Times. Additionally, Judge Vaughn Walker, known for presiding over California's Prop 8 case, has never denied his sexuality, for years attending San Francisco bar events with his partner.

He, however, never chose to affirmatively announce his status as a gay man.

Walker's story is likely common amongst the gay judiciary, who have seen fellow judges publicly scrutinized for even appearing to be gay.

Take, for example, the confirmations of both Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. As single, childless women, there was much speculation as to their sexual orientation, with the media prying deeply into their private lives.

So perhaps it is notable that J. Paul Oetken is an openly gay judge, if not because he chose the harder path, then because he managed to avoid the pitfalls of doing so.

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