Metro Weekly

Appointments for Equality

Obama nominees and appointees have a history in LGBT equality – from working to fight HIV/AIDS to securing equal housing to ending sodomy laws

In a trio of nominations or appointments this past week, the Obama administration gave a nod to many corners of the struggle for LGBT equality – from the early days of HIV/AIDS, to the leadership of out LGBT officials in San Francisco, to the importance of the courts.

Roberta Achtenberg
Roberta Achtenberg
(Courtesy of California State University )

On Jan. 26, President Barack Obama announced that he had named Roberta Achtenberg to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and Jeffrey Levi to the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health. Obama also announced the nomination of J. Paul Oetken to serve as a U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of New York.

Although Achtenberg has a long résumé and list of accomplishments, she is best known for the attacks she faced in the ’90s from then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Achtenberg, a civil rights attorney and former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, served as assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton.

The first openly LGBT person approved for a Senate-confirmed position, it was during the Senate’s consideration of her nomination that Helms said he would not support her nomination ”because she’s a damn lesbian.” He later claimed that his problem was that Achtenberg was a lesbian activist, not that she was a lesbian, but the line stuck.

In 2008, she served as one of the initial members of the Health and Human Services transition advisory committee for Obama following his presidential election. Achtenberg had earlier supported now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, serving on the LGBT Americans for Hillary steering committee during the Democratic primary.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission does not have enforcement authority, but it reports that its mission includes the ability to ”investigate complaints alleging that citizens are being deprived of their right to vote by reason of their race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or by reason of fraudulent practices.”

It also, according to the commission, ”stud[ies] and collect[s] information relating to discrimination or a denial of equal protection of the laws under the Constitution because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice.”

Additionally, Oetken’s nomination would be notable because he would be the second out LGBT member of the Southern District of New York court, joining U.S. District Court Judge Deborah Batts, as well as one of the only out gay federal judges in the nation. Batts, a black lesbian, was nominated by President Clinton in 1994 and was the first out LGBT federal judge confirmed by the U.S. Senate in the country. Obama had previously nominated Edward DuMont, an out gay District lawyer, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Oetken served in the Clinton administration as both an associate counsel to the White House and, earlier, in the Department of Justice as an attorney-advisor in the Office of Legal Counsel.

Tony Varona, associate dean and professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law, praised the nomination.

Varona, the former general counsel and legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, told Metro Weekly, “Paul, an old friend, boasts a brilliant and rigorous legal mind, a sharp wit, as well as sterling academic and professional credentials.

“Just as important is that he also has the native judgment and temperament that make for the best jurists,” he said. “He would be an impartial and fair judge – and a source of great pride for the Obama administration as well as the LGBT community.”

David Lat, managing editor of Above the Law – the leading legal gossip blog – noted the significance of the Southern District of New York.

“The Southern District of New York is the nation’s most prestigious trial court,” he wrote to Metro Weekly. “Judges in the S.D.N.Y. handle some of the country’s most important cases, from gigantic financial frauds to high-profile terrorism prosecutions.

“It’s unmatched in cachet, and it has an all-star bench. Paul will fit right in.”

Oetken’s nomination was sent to the Senate on Jan. 26. The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider the nomination before the full Senate will consider it. Then, the full Senate will need to approve the nomination before Oetken actually would take a spot on the bench.

Among Oetken’s other work, he represented the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association in submitting its amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003. In the case, which resulted in striking down all sodomy laws in the nation, Oetken co-authored the brief with Chai Feldblum, who serves as a commissioner of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Finally, Obama named Levi – who ran the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s D.C. office in the early days of the AIDS crisis – to the prevention, health promotion, and integrative and public health board. According to the White House biographical information provided, Levi currently is the executive director of Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to making disease prevention a national priority.