Sept. 26--A Washington & Jefferson College graduate who grew up on welfare in Fayette County was in line to become the first openly gay black man to serve as a federal judge.
For now, however, that milestone will go unmarked.
The confirmation of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to fill a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, has been halted due to a custom in the U.S. Senate that requires both home state senators to approve a judicial nominee.
In terms of Florida senatorial support, the Pittsburgh-area native is only halfway there.
Bill Nelson, the Democratic senator, gave Judge Thomas his approval in July, but Marco Rubio, a Republican who supported the nomination by Mr. Obama when it was announced in November 2012, has now withdrawn his support.
Mr. Rubio cannot support moving forward with Judge Thomas' nomination, his spokeswoman Brooke Sammon said in a statement Wednesday.
Mr. Rubio's review of Judge Thomas' state court record "raises serious concerns about his fitness for a lifetime federal appointment," Ms. Sammon wrote in an email, citing questions that arose from two cases this year about his "judicial temperament and his willingness to impose appropriate criminal sentences."
The reasons given by Mr. Rubio for throwing up a roadblock to Judge Thomas's confirmation surprised Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the W&J political science department.
"Will Thomas is the American dream, just like Marco Rubio," Mr. DiSarro said. "It really makes no sense to me why Rubio would go against him."
Judge Thomas was one of Mr. DiSarro's students when he attended W&J, and the two have kept in touch. Judge Thomas has returned to the Washington, Pa., campus to mentor pre-law students and Mr. DiSarro has followed his former student's career in Florida, where he has served on the circuit court since 2005.
"To me, as a Republican -- and I've been a lifelong Republican -- I think this is the person I'd want on the federal bench in Florida," Mr. DiSarro said. Indeed, shortly after Judge Thomas was nominated, Mr. DiSarro sent letters to Pennsylvania's two senators encouraging their support.
The reason Mr. Rubio is withdrawing his support, Mr. DiSarro believes, is "a political matter."
"I think it has to do with politics, period," he said.
Mr. Rubio, who is often mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, has faced recent criticism from within his own party regarding his immigration proposals. Mr. DiSarro characterized Mr. Rubio's move as an attempt to appeal to the "law and order group" and the right wing of the Republican Party.
Ms. Sammon, in her email, said Mr. Rubio was concerned about Judge Thomas' actions in two cases he decided this year. In the first, a fatal hit-and-run of a cyclist by a man investigators suspected had been drinking, Judge Thomas handed out the minimum sentence when the family asked for the maximum, Ms. Sammon said.
The man, who has a potentially fatal genetic disease, was sentenced to 364 days in jail in addition to the year he had spent there, plus two years of house arrest. The New York Times reported Monday that both the lead prosecutor in the case and the administrative judge for the 11th Judicial Circuit criminal division wrote letters to Mr. Rubio saying that Judge Thomas' actions were fair and within the law.
In the other case, involving the rape and murder of a South Florida woman, Judge Thomas' conduct "raised a number of questions," Ms. Sammon said. Her email cited his decision to keep out confessions from some of the defendants. All five men charged in the crime have been convicted or pleaded guilty, and earlier this year, when sentencing one of them to death, Judge Thomas cried before leaving the courtroom, another action Ms. Sammon noted in her email.
"We don't know why he cried," said Yolanda Strader, president of a Miami-Dade County association for black lawyers, though her belief is that it was because of the brutality of the crime. Regardless, she added, the Senate should get the opportunity to consider his nomination.
"We're saying, let the process go forward," said Ms. Strader, whose organization has been showing its support for Judge Thomas on its Facebook page. "Let the Senate question Judge Thomas. Let him have a confirmation hearing."
Ms. Strader, who has appeared before Judge Thomas, described him as "competent" and "hard-working," a jurist who is careful to ask lawyers to clarify if he does not understand their arguments.
"That's the sort of judge we need on the bench," she said.
Judge Thomas has a majority well-qualified rating from the American Bar Association. As a student, and in his career, Judge Thomas has been "a very objective, fair-minded person," Mr. DiSarro said.
He started his life in Brownsville, Fayette County, the ninth of 10 children raised by a single mother. He grew up in public housing and arrived at W&J with a single suitcase and not even $20 in his pocket, according to a story the school posted on its website about its 1991 graduate.
At W&J, he joined the debate team, where he excelled, said Mary Elizabeth Yancosek Gamble, now the chairwoman of the communications department at Bethany College in West Virginia but then the W&J debate director.
"He always wanted to win, not because winning was so important, but because he wanted to be the best," she said of Judge Thomas, who received his law degree from Temple University in Philadelphia.
Mr. DiSarro said he spoke recently to Judge Thomas, and said his former student was disappointed by Mr. Rubio's announcement but still wanted to be confirmed.
"There's one thing about Will Thomas -- he does not give up," Mr. DiSarro said. "If you look at where he came from, and to arrive at this point, this isn't a person that would quit or throw in the towel."
The W&J professor plans on writing a letter to Mr. Rubio, asking him to look more closely at Judge Thomas' record.
Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.
(c)2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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Original headline: Sen. Rubio blocks nod of judge, a Western Pa. native, to federal bench
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OCTOBER 31, 2014
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