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Senate confirms first lesbian judge to a federal appeals court

As a litigator, Beth Robinson had argued the case that led to the first civil union law in the country.
Image: Beth Robinson
Beth Robinson takes the oath of office as associate justice of the Vermont Supreme Court in Montpelier, Vermont, on Nov. 28, 2011. Toby Talbot / AP

Vermont Supreme Court Justice Beth Robinson has been confirmed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, making her the first out lesbian to serve on any federal circuit court.

The U.S. Senate voted to confirm Robinson 51-45 on Monday after President Joe Biden nominated her in August. The 13 federal courts of appeals, or circuit courts, are the last stop before a case would be heard before the Supreme Court.

Robinson, 56, has served as an associate justice on the Vermont Supreme Court since 2011 and previously was counsel to then-Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin from 2010 to 2011. 

As a litigator with Langrock Sperry & Wool from 1993 to 2010, she represented LGBTQ clients in several civil rights cases and served as co-counsel in Baker v. State of Vermont, which saw the Vermont Supreme Court rule that a ban on same-sex marriage violated state law. That 1999 decision led to the Vermont Legislature passing the country’s first civil union law, a precursor to same-sex marriage, the following year.

As the chair of the Vermont Freedom to Marry Task Force, Robinson then helped bring gay marriage to the Green Mountain State in 2009, making it the first to enact it through legislation rather than a court ruling.

Her confirmation means the 2nd Circuit, which hears cases from New York, Connecticut and Vermont, will now have a majority of Democratic appointees, the Advocate reported

In August, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, reached across the aisle to praise Robinson’s nomination.

“She will make a great addition to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit,” he said in a statement that referenced Vermont’s state motto, “bringing the Vermont values of commitment to justice and equality, fairness, and Freedom & Unity to the bench.”

In a statement on the Senate floor before Monday’s vote, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., lauded Robinson’s career as a “display of commitment to the rule of law.”

“Beth changed the trajectory of LGBTQ rights in this country, and her tireless work has led our nation toward justice,” he added.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in a tweet Monday, “I know you will make Vermont proud and will be an excellent addition to the federal bench.”

Robinson, however, has not been without critics. During her confirmation hearing in September, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, expressed concerns that her record as a justice and as an advocate demonstrates a “marked hostility towards religious liberty.”

According to Lambda Legal, a leading LGBTQ civil rights group, of the 870 federal judges on the bench, only 13 are openly gay or lesbian. There are also no known bisexual or transgender jurists on the federal level.

“LGBT representation in the courts is critical because judges that more accurately reflect the diversity of our nation give legitimacy to these important institutions, which have such a profound impact on the lives of so many,” Sharon McGowan, Lambda Legal’s chief strategy officer and legal director, said in a statement. “Judge Robinson’s lived and professional experiences will be assets in her work to fulfill our nation’s promise of justice.”

In the same round of nominees in August, Biden also put forward Charlotte Sweeney to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. 

Her hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet, but, if confirmed, she would be the first LGBTQ federal judge in the state, according to the White House, and the first openly LGBTQ woman serving as a federal district court judge in any state west of the Mississippi River.

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