Metro Weekly

Judge Oetken

Gay lawyer dons his robe, taking his place on the federal bench in Manhattan – and in history

On Thursday, Oct. 27, more than 20 judges of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York assembled in a special session for the ceremonial induction of James Paul Oetken as a federal judge on the court.

Chief Judge Loretta Preska administered Oetken’s oath of office after the court’s clerk, Ruby Krajick, read President Obama’s commission for the new judge. The ornate courtroom on the ninth floor of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in downtown Manhattan was filled to capacity with family, friends and colleagues attending the induction.

James Paul Oetken

James Paul Oetken

(Photo courtesy of Paul Oetken)

After Oetken took the oath and signed his commission, the pomp and circumstance continued when, as per tradition, Oetken’s parents, James and Betty Oetken, helped him put on his new judge’s robe. As noted by Preska, Oetken’s partner, Makky Pratayot, also was in attendance. Finally, Oetken was greeted by his new colleagues and took his seat on the bench.

After the brief ceremony, a reception was held, at which a former colleague of Oetken’s from Debevoise & Plimpton LLP gave remarks and read a letter of congratulations from U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Richard Cudahy, for whom Oetken had clerked in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and the judge’s wife.

Also at the reception, a representative for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who recommended Oetken’s nomination to Obama, read a letter from the senator.

In his letter, Schumer wrote that Oetken’s judgeship was ”a pebble in the water, sending ripples through history,” adding, ”In this case, at this moment, we must note that Judge Oetken is not just the embodiment of excellence and moderation. As the first openly gay man to be confirmed as a federal judge and to serve on the federal bench, he will be a symbol of how much we have achieved as a country in just the last few decades.”

Oetken follows only one other Article III federal judge to have been an out LGBT lawyer upon confirmation. U.S. District Court Judge Deborah Batts was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the same court – the Southern District of New York – in 1994, the same year her nomination was approved by the Senate. Article III judges – referencing the judicial powers detailed in the Constitution – have lifetime tenure.

Oetken’s ceremonial induction came a few weeks after the judge began work on the court. The new judge was sworn in by Preska Sept. 19, with several witnesses – including Pratayot – on hand.

Oetken, who was nominated by Obama on Jan. 26, saw his nomination proceed through the Senate at a relatively rapid pace – a fact helped along by the support Oetken had received by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. His nomination was approved by the Senate on July 18 on an 80-13 vote.

Among the other new judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate to the Southern District of New York is the third out LGBT federal Article III judge, Alison Nathan, who was approved by the Senate Oct. 13. Additionally, Judge Paul Engelmayer, who was confirmed by the Senate July 26, had advocated on behalf of same-sex couples seeking equal marriage rights in New York while he was an attorney at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.