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Gay attorney recommended for federal district court judge

Of 678 federal district court judges, guess how many have voluntarily identified themselves as being gay?

Answer: One.

It is for that reason that there is cause for excitement that President Obama may be on the verge of nominating another.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced this month that he is recommending the president nominate openly gay attorney Daniel Alter to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York – which includes Manhattan and environs.

That just happens to be the same district bench on which the nation’s first, and thus far only, openly gay federal judge sits. Judge Deborah Batts became the first openly gay person appointed to a federal judgeship when, in 1994, she was appointed by then President Bill Clinton.

The San Francisco Chronicle famously reported this month that Vaughn Walker, the chief judge for the U.S. District Court for Northern California, “is himself gay.” But Walker has not made any public disclosures, in the Chronicle or elsewhere, to confirm the paper’s assertion.

Thus, Alter -- if nominated and confirmed -- would become the first openly gay man on any federal bench in the country.

Alter is national director of the civil rights division of the Anti-Defamation League, where he has worked on issues such as hate crimes. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and clerked for two other Yale Law alumni -- both appeals court judges -- one was appointed by Republican President George H.W. Bush, the other by President Bill Clinton.

Alter is no stranger to the district court. For six years, he served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, specializing in terrorism issues, as well as First Amendment law.

Alter sought his appointment through the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund’s Presidential Appointments Project, which has recorded more than 100 openly gay appointees to various administration positions thus far.

Schumer made his announcement in a statement to the Human Rights Campaign gala in New York on Feb. 6 and through a press release Feb. 8, calling Alter a “brilliant attorney” with “extensive experience.”

“I’m proud to nominate Daniel Alter, period,” Schumer said. “But I am equally proud to nominate him because he is a history-maker who will be the first openly gay male judge in American history.”

The Human Rights Campaign issued a press release putting its support behind Alter, calling him “eminently qualified.” The group sent a letter to Obama’s transition team in December 2008 urging his appointment.

U.S. senators often make recommendations to the president for judiciary appointments, but a president is under no obligation to accept those recommendations. Political observers have noted that Obama has appeared to take such recommendations to heart.

White House LGBT spokesperson Shin Inouye said the White House had no comment on the possibility of the appointment at this point.

Last month, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California appointed openly gay law professor Donna M. Ryu as a full-time magistrate judge for Oakland. Ryu is on the faculty of the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and was a founding member of the Berkeley Women’s Law Journal.

The chief judge for the Northern District of California is Walker.