President Obama made another strong showing in support of his stated goals to diversify the federal bench and fill critical vacancies with three new nominations, including Judge Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro, the first openly gay Latina federal judge.
Quiñones is a native of Puerto Rico and if confirmed by the Senate, would be the first openly gay Latina to serve in the federal judiciary. She earned her law degree in 1975 from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law. After graduation she relocated to Philadelphia to work as a staff attorney for Community Legal Services, Inc. a legal aid organization dedicated to providing low-income people with an array of affordable legal services. In May 1990, Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey nominated Judge Quiñones Alejandro for a judicial appointment but that process did not go smoothly. The Senate hesitated in its confirmation, and on November 5, 1991, Judge Quiñones Alejandro was instead elected the first Hispanic female judge of the Court of Common Pleas for the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, Quiñones is the eighth openly gay life-tenured federal judicial nominee named by President Obama. Prior to Obama’s election, only one openly gay judge, Deborah Batts, a President Clinton appointee, had been nominated and confirmed by the Senate.
President Obama also nominated Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo and Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl for the federal bench. Judge Restrepo has served as a United States Magistrate Judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania since 2006. Prior to taking the bench, Judge Restrepo was a named partner at the law firm of Krasner & Restrepo from 1993 to 2006 in addition to serving as an Assistant Federal Defender in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1990 to 1993 and as an Assistant Defender with the Defender Association of Philadelphia from 1987 to 1990. Judge Restrepo began his legal career as a law clerk at the National Prison Project. He received his J.D. in 1986 from Tulane Law School and his B.A. in 1981 from the University of Pennsylvania.
Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl has served as President Judge of the Berks County Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania since 2008, having joined the court as a judge in 1998. Previously, Judge Schmehl was in private practice and for much of that time also served as the Berks County Solicitor. Judge Schmehl also served as an Assistant District Attorney in Berks County from 1981 until 1986 and as an Assistant Public Defender. He received his J.D. in 1980 from the University of Toledo School of Law and his B.A. in 1977 from Dickinson College.
“These men and women have had distinguished legal careers and I am honored to ask them to continue their work as judges on the federal bench,” said President Obama. “They will serve the American people with integrity and an unwavering commitment to justice.”
All three will need to be confirmed by the Senate. There are currently eight vacancies in the federal courts in Pennsylvania with two prior nominees for seats considered “judicial emergencies” waiting for over four months for a confirmation vote from the Senate. There is no good faith reason why those judges, or any of the presidents remaining nominees, should wait any longer.