J. Paul Oetken

  • October 8, 2015
    Guest Post

    by J. Paul Oetken, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York

    Judge Richard D. Cudahy, who served for 36 years on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, died last month at the age of 89. He was beloved by his family and friends, his colleagues, and his many law clerks. He was also admired as a brilliant and influential jurist whose opinions shaped the development of the law in myriad ways.

    I served as one of Judge Cudahy’s law clerks from 1991 to 1992, and that year was one of the most rewarding and interesting of my career. The judge was not only a kind and generous boss; he was also a great teacher and mentor. We discussed every case in detail, and through that process I gained great insight into how he thought about law and justice.

    Judge Cudahy’s approach to the law was humanistic and pragmatic; he was neither formalistic nor result-oriented. He cared deeply about the judicial craft, taking great care to write opinions that were well-reasoned and principled, while always being particularly sensitive to how legal doctrine affects people’s lives. His sense of fairness and even-handedness pervaded his evaluation of every case, regardless of the background of the litigants involved.  In a prisoner’s appeal in a civil rights case, Judge Cudahy wrote (in response to a colleague’s economic analysis):  “Since the financial net worth of most prisoners is zero and their economic value while incarcerated perhaps less than zero, it is not surprising that efforts to take them seriously as human beings are sometimes scorned. They are not all Jean Valjean, but they are people.”

    The judge was modest as a jurist, just as he was modest as a person. He did not pretend that an outcome was obvious when it was not, nor did he construct fancy theories to dictate results of cases.  He was an honest judge who practiced his craft straightforwardly.

    He was also extraordinarily hard-working and well-prepared. Every night he would carry a heavy stack of briefs home with him.  When we discussed our cases, he had always read the briefs thoroughly and had his own views (and questions) about each of the issues presented.  He had high standards for his written opinions, going over drafts repeatedly until he was satisfied that an opinion was right, both in its result and in its explanation.

  • July 21, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    Following the Senate’s confirmation of J. Paul Oetken as the first openly gay male federal judge, President Barack Obama has announced another nomination that would add diversity to our courts.

    Litigator and former assistant U.S. attorney Michael Walter Fitzgerald has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, becoming Obama’s fourth openly gay nominee. The others are Alison Nathan, a nominee to the Southern District of New York, and Edward Dumont, nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

    These nominations have contributed to the record diversity of Obama’s nominees, Politico reports.

    Despite a backlog in confirming Obama’s judicial nominations, the president has surpassed his predecessors in putting forth diverse candidates to the federal bench. Obama has nominated more female, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American and openly gay candidates as federal judges than Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. That includes two female Supreme Court justices, one of whom is the high court’s only Hispanic justice. The numbers are particularly striking for Asian-American nominees. Obama has nominated half of the Asian-American federal judges currently on the bench.

    Of course, many of those nominees haven’t had the success of Oetken in getting through the confirmation process.

  • July 19, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Yesterday’s confirmation of J. Paul Oetken as a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York, as noted here, continued the Senate’s snail’s pace for filing vacancies that are severely undercutting the ability of federal courts to function.

    And there appears to be no end in sight to the Republican-led opposition of President Obama’s judicial selections. The Republican leadership is only focused, seemingly, on the debt-ceiling debate, which they aren’t doing much on either. But the debt-ceiling debate is proving good cover for Republican inaction on federal court vacancies.

    ACS Executive Director Caroline Fredrickson, while lauding the confirmation of Oetken, the first openly gay man to be confirmed to the federal bench, blasted the ongoing obstruction.

    “Republicans are playing politics with the nation’s financial obligations, while at the same time kicking other responsibilities down the road,” Fredrickson said. “The rising federal court vacancies are not going to solve themselves. Judges need to be confirmed, and the Republican opposition seems immovable. Yesterday’s confirmation of J. Paul Oetken was one, as Sen. Leahy noted, that should have come months ago. Instead his nomination is only the fifth judicial nomination to be considered by the Senate since mid-May. Americans deserve a court system that operates at full capacity. A federal bench with 91 vacancies and more to come is one that is seriously hobbled.”

    Oetken and other minority candidates have faced a tough confirmation process. As noted in this guest post by the National Women’s Law Center’s Amy Matsui, forty-nine percent of President Obama’s judicial selections have been women, and while many have been confirmed, many others have been left to languish for months.

    For example Caitlin J. Halligan was first nominated in fall 2010 to be a U.S. Circuit Judge, District of Columbia, and renominated in January. She was reported favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March of this year and her ABA rating is “unanimously well qualified.” Bernice B. Donald was first nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in fall 2010, and renominated in January. Donald, also with positive ABA rating, was reported favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.  Wisconsin’s junior senator, Ron Johnson, a Republican with major Tea Party backing, has held up the nomination of Victoria Nourse to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Leading Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Cudahy took note of Nourse’s predicament at the recent ACS National Convention.

    Visit JudicialNominations.org for analysis and updates of the efforts to confront the judicial vacancies crisis.

  • July 18, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Senate after a typically slow process confirmed J. Paul Oetken as a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York. Oetken is the first openly gay man to be confirmed to a seat on the federal bench.

    Oetken, a lawyer who has practiced in the private and public sectors, including time in the Clinton administration’s White House Counsel’s Office, was reported favorably by the Senate Judiciary Committee more than three months ago, a fact Sen. Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy lamented today.

    Leahy said Oetken (pictured) should have been confirmed quickly after his vote out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Yet,” he said, “like so many of President Obama’s qualified, consensus nominees, Mr. Oetken has been stuck without cause or explanation for months on the Senate’s Executive Calendar.”

    But Senate Republicans are not interested in budging from their obstinate stance against Obama’s judicial selections.

    Leahy noted, “Federal judicial vacancies around the country still number too many, and they have persisted for too long. Whereas the Democratic majority in the Senate reduced vacancies from 110 to 60 in President Bush’s first two years, judicial vacancies still number 91 two and a half years into President Obama’s term.”

    The president’s efforts to diversify the federal bench are especially drawing Republican opposition, some have noted. For example, Wisconsin’s newest senator, Ron Johnson, has continued to block University of Wisconsin law professor Victoria Nourse’s nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Her father-in-law, nationally recognized federal appeals court Judge Richard Cudahy addressed Nourse’s situation during the ACS 2011 National Convention, saying that the Senate is mired in politics and leaving the bench’s oldest judges to carry the heaviest burden among the federal judiciary, which, as Sen. Leahy noted, is beset with too many vacancies.

    Despite the fraught judicial confirmations process,  D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association, noted the president’s efforts to diversify the judiciary.

    “Further hopes to diversify the bench are still in process,” she said. “Alison Nathan, a former associate White House counsel and openly gay woman, was also nominated to the U.S. District Court of Southern New York by President Obama in March. Her nomination was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, and will now be moved to the Senate to be voted on in the near future.”

    Sen. Charles Schumer lauded the confirmation, saying, “Oetken is the first openly gay man to be confirmed as a federal judge and to serve on the federal bench, he will be a symbol of how much, we have achieved as a country in just the last few decades. And importantly, he will give hope to many talented young lawyers, who until now, thought their paths might be limited because of their sexual orientation,” towleroad reports.

    For more information about the president's efforts to fill court vacancies, see JudicialNominations.org.