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CEDAR RAPIDS - The confirmation of a graduate of Regis High School and the University of Iowa to a federal judgeship is being hailed as a historic moment for gay rights.
J. Paul Oetken, formerly of Cedar Rapids, became the first openly gay man confirmed to the federal bench when the U.S. Senate voted 80-13 Monday 18 to confirm President Barack Obama's nomination of the cable television industry lawyer to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. It is considered one of the most prestigious trial courts in the nation as it hears major cases ranging from financial fraud to terrorism.
“We're so excited that (Oetken's) sexual orientation did not seem to play a role in that confirmation process,” said Troy Price, interim executive director of One Iowa, the state's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender advocacy group. In regard to nominees for any post, “You have to look not at any particular demographic, but at their qualifications,” said Price.
In confirmation hearings, Oetken spoke of his legal work on LGBT issues. He's worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, which was involved in overturning Iowa's law banning same-sex marriage.
He was confirmed with the support of both of Iowa's U.S. senators, Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Chuck Grassley.
Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke of Oetken's Iowa upbringing and called him a “consensus nominee.”
“Mr. Oetken grew up in my state of Iowa,” Grassley said. “I support this nomination and congratulate him on his professional accomplishments.”
His accomplishments started while growing up in Cedar Rapids. Oetken was named “Youth Leader of Year: at Regis by the National Council on Youth Leadership and in 1984. That same year, Oetken, playing the role of Sen. Alan Cranston, won the school's mock Democratic presidential convention.
“He was an absolutely brilliant guy,” said Bill McCartan, who graduated from Regis a year ahead of Oetken.
They were high school debate partners and Oetken “did all the thinking and talking,” said McCartan, now an attorney at Bradley & Riley.
“He had a great combination of skills,” McCartan added. “He was personable, he got along with everyone. You just knew he was going to do great things.”
Oetken was student body president at Regis in 1984, his senior year. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1988 “with highest distinction,” according to his White House biography, and received his law degree at Yale Law School.
His parents, Betty and James Oetken, formerly of KCRG-TV, have returned to Louisville, Kentucky, where Oetken was born in 1965. A brother, John, lives in Iowa City.
After law school, Oetken clerked for two federal judges and Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, and later was an associate counsel to President Bill Clinton. More recently he has been senior vice president and associate general counsel of Cablevision.
Price hopes Oetken's confirmation will signal that sexual orientation will no longer be the basis on which nominees for any post are judged.
“At end of the day, you always should look at the person's record, their credentials,” Price said.