Political Notes: Senator Butler addresses LGBTQ federal judges, AIDS funds, and 2024 races

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday February 5, 2024
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U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler spoke during a community event at the Boys & Girls Club of San Francisco's Don Fisher Clubhouse January 27. Photo: Rick Gerharter
U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler spoke during a community event at the Boys & Girls Club of San Francisco's Don Fisher Clubhouse January 27. Photo: Rick Gerharter

While in San Francisco recently lesbian U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler praised President Joe Biden's efforts to diversify the judicial branch and argued for the renewal of a global AIDS fund that conservative Republicans have targeted over abortion rights. The Democratic lawmaker was less forthcoming about which candidates running in 2024 she will be endorsing.

Following the death last fall of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had occupied her Senate seat for decades, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Butler, 44, to serve out the remainder of Feinstein's term through early 2025. The second Black woman to represent the Golden State in the U.S. Senate — Vice President Kamala Harris was the first — and the first LGBTQ person to do so, Butler subsequently decided against seeking election this year for a full six-year term.

Last month Butler (D) held her first official community event in San Francisco as California's junior senator. As the Bay Area Reporter first reported online January 27, the married mom met with youth leaders at the Boys & Girls Club of San Francisco's Don Fisher Clubhouse near City Hall.

During a 15-minute press gaggle afterward with the B.A.R. and the local NBC News television station, Butler reiterated that she "doesn't have any intention" to endorse one of the top three Democrats in the race for her Senate seat. Congressmembers Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine, and Barbara Lee of Oakland all hope to survive the March 5 primary, where only the top two voter-getters regardless of party will move on to the general election contest for the Senate seat in November.

"I think Californians have three great choices in front of them," said Butler. "Those candidates are working to earn not only the vote but the trust of the California people. I look forward to seeing who they put forward."

One of three out members of the state's congressional delegation, Butler did not say if she was supporting any of the LGBTQ people on the March ballot running for U.S. House seats in California when asked about her endorsements by the B.A.R. She has endorsed gay Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino) in the race for an open South Bay House seat spanning Santa Clara and San Mateo counties but did not mention the state legislator by name in her response.

"I am definitely going to be talking with folks who would seek my endorsement and be a part of those conversations. I have always been really committed to the work of representation, whether we are talking about women or LGBTQ or Native communities," said Butler, who quit leading Emily's List, which works to elect more women to public office, to fill the Senate vacancy. "The importance of representation in our government is really, really critical."

Her predecessor, having served as a former mayor of the city, was never shy about her endorsements of San Francisco mayoral candidates. But noting she "will never, ever pretend to be Senator Feinstein," Butler demurred when asked by the B.A.R. if she would endorse Mayor London Breed's bid for reelection this fall.

"Ultimately, the people of San Francisco will determine how she's doing and that's where the decision should stay," said Butler.

She also declined to give her opinion on how she felt Breed was doing as the city's leader. Breed and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, a former congressmember, are two of the state's most prominent Black female leaders and have been subjected to harsh criticism by their constituents and scrutiny from the national press.

"I would not be able to judge it one way or the other. I think the ultimate judge of how the mayor is going to be doing in her job is when she is up for reelection," replied Butler about Breed. "It is tough to lead cities and communities through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. It is tough to lead cities and communities through an explosion of housing unaffordability and inaccessibility. You can't sort of sit and Monday morning quarterback somebody who's, I think, trying to do the best job she can."

Judicial hearings

Butler did have praise for Biden when asked by the B.A.R. about his record of appointing LGBTQ people as federal judges. Filling Feinstein's seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Butler has a high profile role in questioning judicial nominees during their confirmation hearings.

Biden just marked the confirmation the 175th life-tenured federal judge he has nominated. He said he was "particularly proud that these judges reflect the diversity that is our country's strength" in a February 1 statement from the White House.

"I think this president is accelerating his nominations and moving them incredibly quickly," said Butler. "I am really excited about the pace at which nominations and confirmation votes are happening."

In the fall she took part in the questioning of lawyer Nicole Berner, a lesbian whom Biden named to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Butler will do so again during the confirmation hearing for Rhode Island District Court Associate Judge Melissa DuBose, whom Biden nominated in January to the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island. As a Black lesbian, Dubose would the court's first openly LGBTQ+ judge and first person of color to serve on it.

As the B.A.R.'s Political Notebook column reported in November, Biden has faced pressure to nominate more LGBTQ judges. To date, no one who is transgender or nonbinary has been nominated or confirmed to the federal bench.

More than 80% of federal district courts lack an LGBTQ judge. The country has yet to see an out LGBTQ person nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Judges make decisions on issues that matter to the American people — from workers' rights to women's reproductive rights, to making sure our criminal justice system functions fairly and efficiently," stated Biden. "That is why I will continue moving expeditiously — working with the Senate — to nominate and confirm exceptionally qualified individuals who are impartial and faithful to the Constitution."

Should Berner and DuBose both be seated on their courts then Biden will have tied with former President Barack Obama in the naming and confirming of out judges. Obama holds the record with his naming 11 out judges who were confirmed during his two terms.

"I think this is one of the most diverse body of judges put forth by any president. I think our president should really be recognized for that," said Butler of Biden's record to date. "There is always room to do better relative to LGBTQ, Native, and communities of color."

Butler said that she and her Democratic counterpart U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, California's senior member of the chamber, are working with the White House to bring forward diverse nominees from the Golden State, including LGBTQ individuals, for vacancies on the federal bench.

"I think Senator Padilla and I are very much committed to adding to the diversity of California justices and LGBTQ+, Native, Latino, African American. I think you should absolutely be looking for those kinds of nominations from us that really do represent the totality of California," said Butler.

They are doing so not solely because the judicial nominees will bring more diverse representation to the courts, noted Butler.

"I think it is up to those of us having to work with the White House on helping to find and unearth those judges that are ready to be moved forward, and to move those names forward not just because they add to our diversity but because they are qualified to do the job and have an experience that invites others to have more confidence in the body itself," she explained.


Also asked by the B.A.R. about the prospects for seeing Congress this year renew the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR and established under former President George W. Bush, Butler strongly defended the $7 billion program that funds service providers around the world. Last year, Republicans opposed to abortion rights blocked a five-year reauthorization of PEPFAR, which remains operational at its current funding level while congressmembers try to hammer out a deal.

"It is one of the most successful global programs to combat AIDS in the history of our country," said Butler. "We have got to do the work to get it renewed and unhinged from the divisive politics that is getting in the way of just doing the right thing. We should have learned our lesson about what ignoring it and the cost that has on human life."

Ensuring the longevity of PEPFAR, added Butler, "is so much bigger than the politics of the day."

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko<.

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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