william-thomas-fc-cc.jpgMIAMI — Members of local bar associations and the NAACP are voicing concern that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is holding up the confirmation hearing for a veteran local judge whom President Barack Obama has nominated to the federal bench at a time when the backlog in Miami’s federal court dockets is growing.

 Rubio and the senior Florida senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, initially approved Judge William Thomas to fill a key vacancy in the Southern Judicial District. But Rubio is no longer willing to let the nomination proceed to the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings.

“Sen. Rubio has determined that Thomas’ record on the state court raises serious concerns about his fitness for a lifetime federal appointment,” Brooke Sammon, Rubio’s deputy press secretary, said in a statement to the South Florida Times.

“Those concerns include questions about his judicial temperament and his willingness to impose appropriate criminal sentences,” Sammon said, citing the cases of Michele Traverso and Joel Lebron. “After reviewing Thomas’ record, Sen. Rubio cannot support moving forward with the nomination.”

Traverso struck two bicyclists with a car, killing one of them, in early 2012.  He pleaded guilty to several charges, including driving with a suspended license, leaving the scene of an accident involving a death, leaving the scene of an accident with great bodily harm and cocaine possession.

Thomas sentenced Traverso to what Rubio’s office said was “the minimum sentence of 22.8 months in jail, less time served, amounting to only 364 days after the sentence.”  The Lebron case involved the violent abduction, gang rape and murder of a young woman in 2002 while she and a male companion were out on a date.
The man’s throat was slit and he was left for dead by the attackers.  According to media reports, Thomas was visibly upset emotionally as he sentenced Lebron to death.

Adora Obi Nweze, president of both the Florida state branch and the  Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP, and several attorney groups dispute Sammon’s characterization of Thomas.

In a statement, Nweze described Thomas as “a well-qualified nominee for the federal appellate court… poised to make history” as the first U.S. federal judge who is a gay African American.

“We oppose any practice or ideology that would unjustly block a qualified candidate from serving his country due to political pressure or discrimination,” Nweze said.

Other groups rallying to Thomas’ defense include the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr., Bar Association, the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, the Haitian Lawyers Association, the National Bar Association’s Virgil Hawkins Chapter, the Dominican Bar Association, the T.J. Reddick Bar Association and the Caribbean Bar Association.

“The vacancy for which Judge Thomas was nominated has been open since early 2012. Judge Thomas was selected by our local bipartisan [Judicial Nominating Commission], interviewed and approved by both of our senators and nominated by the president of the United States,” said David Oscar Markus, a former president of the Federal Bar Association’s South Florida chapter and a regular blogger on local judicial affairs.  “Congress has declared the Southern District of Florida to be a ‘judicial emergency’ district, meaning that we need judges immediately,” Markus said. “This emergency is creating a real hardship for litigants in our district because of the delay attendant to judicial vacancies.”

Markus dubbed as “absurd” the delay in allowing Thomas’ confirmation to proceed. “He should be permitted to have a committee hearing and a full senate vote.”

Annika Ashton of the Caribbean Bar Association agreed that the delay was impacting the Southern District. “We are one of the busiest districts in the country,” said Ashton. She said of a total of 18 judicial seats in the Southern District, two are vacant and a third will become open by the end of the year.   

“It’s important to get all of the seats filled,” she said, because “constitutional rights are affected.”Thomas was not the only African-American judge whose nomination to the federal bench was put on hold by Rubio.  Circuit Judge Brian Davis of Nassau County was also waiting for final approval by Rubio until a press conference on Sept. 18 when black bar associations and the NAACP expressed concern. Florida’s junior senator “released Davis’ nomination just days after the press conference,” Ashton said.