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Obama Leaving His Mark On Judiciary As Senate Confirms Gay, Black Judges

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The Senate confirmed Darrin Gayles and Staci Yandle to the federal bench in the same day. They make history as some of the first openly gay, black federal judges in the nation. | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- The Senate made history on Tuesday with its vote to confirm Darrin Gayles to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Gayles, who was confirmed 98-0, is the nation's first openly gay African-American man to be confirmed to the federal bench. His vote came just after the Senate confirmed Staci Yandle to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, by a vote of 52-44. She marks some milestones of her own as the first black lesbian federal judge in two decades and the second one in the nation's history. The first, Judge Deborah Batts, was sworn in during June 1994.

"Never before in the course of the history of our state has there been an Article III federal judge who is openly a member of the LGBT community," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said ahead of Yandle's vote. "In short, Staci Yandle's confirmation marks another important milestone in America's journey toward equality of opportunity."

By a vote of 92-4, the Senate also confirmed Salvador Mendoza to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington, making him the first Hispanic federal judge to serve in that region of Washington.

The latest confirmations come as the Senate has been plowing through President Barack Obama's nominees, and they reflect the diversity that will remain on the federal judiciary long after he is gone.

A White House aide said Obama has appointed more female judges than any other president, breaking the record previously set by President Bill Clinton. He has also appointed more Hispanic judges than any other president, breaking the record previously held by President George W. Bush. Obama has also appointed more Asian-American judges than all presidents combined and has nominated 12 openly gay federal judges. Last month, the Senate confirmed the first-ever Native American female federal judge in the nation's history.

Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, an association of more than 100 organizations focused on the federal judiciary, hailed the Senate for making progress in filling out the federal bench, but noted that "shameful Republican obstruction" means there are still too many empty federal courts that don't even have a nominee in the queue. Senators are responsible for kicking off the nominations process by recommending home-state picks to the White House, and some senators simply aren't making recommendations.

"That obstruction continues, as can be seen in the fact that there remain 34 judgeships for which no one has been nominated -- 29 of them in states with at least one Republican senator," Aron said.

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