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Victory? First openly gay male appointed as U.S. federal judge.

July 20, 2011

I caught this on Feministing this morning:

Yesterday, the Senate confirmed Paul Oetken, a former Clinton administration lawyer and out gay man, as a federal judge. Via The New York Times:

Mr. Oetken won Senate confirmation by a vote of 80 to 13. He will take his seat as a federal judge in Manhattan after President Obama signs his commission, which may be as soon as this week, according to the office of Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.

“When there are so many qualified gay and lesbian people and none of them get on the bench, you scratch your head and wonder why,” said Mr. Schumer, who recommended the appointment last year to Mr. Obama. “But the old barriers that existed in society are crumbling. That’s what this will say.”

Feministing goes on to say:

[F]uck yeah, let the old barriers crumble! And, as Dana Milbank points out, what’s so heartening is that this confirmation, which “would at one time have been a flashpoint in the culture wars,” went down in a very unremarkable way. A majority of Senate Republicans–28 of them!–even voted to approve … As the Bilerico Project notes, this is “another important milestone in the acceptance of gay people in our national politics.” Here’s to many more to come.

But, does this really represent barriers crumbling? Does this really reflect an acceptance of gay people in national politics? Also, for whom is this a victory?

A brief examination of Oetken’s career makes it clear why 28 Republican Senators would approve him so quickly and quietly.  Prior to joining the Clinton administration in 1997, he worked for one of the most powerful corporate law firms in the country, Jenner & Block.  Jenner & Block’s clientele include some of the world’s biggest polluters, banks and war profiteers, including Dow Chemicals, L-3 Communications, General Electric, General Motors, Fannie Mae, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics.

Where Oetken first broke the glass ceiling, by being appointed the first gay male to legally represent the Eye of Mordor (Chicago headquarters of Jenner & Block).

Oetken left Jenner & Block in 1997 to join the Clinton administration’s Department of Justice.  During this period Clinton passed controversial legislation cementing his reputation as a centrist Democrat, pushing the party even more to the right.  For example, the Clinton administration signed law banning any state or federal inmate from receiving federal student aid, and expanded the federal application of the death penalty to nonviolent crimes.  Clinton also infamously signed the Defense of Marriage Act which defined marriage as between a man and a woman at the federal level, as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement.  Clinton would eventually appoint Oetken as Associate Counsel in the office of White House Counsel, who advises the President on legal matters.

While this doesn’t necessarily reflect Oetken’s politics per se, it does give a sense of the kind of politics and perspective that the Clinton administration would have been looking for in top level employees.

Following his career in the Clinton administration, Oetken went on to work for Debevoise & Plimpton, another major corporate law firm specializing in international law.  Among their list of clients are the Coca-Cola Company, The Gap and Shell Oil, as well as JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and the New York Times.  A global movement has formed to boycott and pressure Coca-Cola over their involvement in the systematic assassination of trade unionists in Colombian bottling plants.  The Gap faced a class action lawsuit for their notorious use of sweatshop labor during Oetken’s time at the firm, and Shell Oil has been under pressure for decades for their complicity in the torture and assassination of Nigerian human rights activists opposed to oil extraction on tribal land.

In his characteristic fashion, President Obama nominated Oetken to serve as a U.S. federal judge in January 2011.  Obama rejected nominating another gay candidate because of  controversial statements he made critical of including the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

So who does Oetken represent? What is so progressive about appointing a wealthy, moderate, high powered corporate law attorney to a federal judgeship?  Does this break down barriers for the majority of LGBT people who aren’t elite high powered attorneys?  Hardly.  Will Oetken represent the needs and interests of working-class queers when facing up against corporate power?  Probably not.  This is identity politics par excellence, and it’s despicable.  The goal is to place more people of a certain identity into the seat of power, instead of dismantling and replacing the structure of power which exploits and oppresses the mass of queer people, and almost everybody else, in the first place.  The only barrier that’s been broken down here is that now a rich and powerful gay male in a suit can order a poor black man to get the needle.  Great job, everyone!  Golf claps.

Here’s to not one more federal judge, ever. Gay or straight.