White House Announces Three LGBT Appointments

BY PAUL SCHINDLER | The White House, on January 26, announced two openly gay or lesbian appointees to administration posts and the nomination of an out gay attorney to the federal judiciary.

President Barack Obama nominated J. Paul Oetken, currently the associate general counsel at Cablevision Systems and an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School, for a seat on the prestigious Southern District of New York federal bench.

He also named Roberta Achtenberg, a co-founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a top housing official under President Bill Clinton, for a seat on the United States Commission on Civil Rights; and Jeffrey Levi, who during the early years of the AIDS crisis headed up the Washington efforts of the National Gay Task Force (now NGLTF) to secure funding to fight the epidemic and later worked in the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, to the Advisory Group on Prevention, Health Promotion, and Integrative and Public Health.

Oetken was recommended for the seat by New York’s senior senator, Democrat Charles Schumer, on September 23 last year.

In lauding the president's nomination of Oetken, Schumer, in a written statement, called him “a strong advocate for the LGBT community” who “has the right combination of skills, experience, and dedication to make an excellent judge.”

The out gay attorney has done work with Lambda Legal and the LGBT Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, and co-authored an amicus brief in support of the successful 2003 challenge to the Texas sodomy law before the US Supreme Court.

“My three criteria for judges are simple: excellence, diversity, and moderation, and Mr. Oetken fits that description to a ‘T’,” Schumer said in his statement.

Oetken served as associate counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1999-2001 and, prior to that, in the Justice Department. After graduating from Yale Law School, he clerked for US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Oetken completed his undergraduate work at the University of Iowa.

In October, the Washington Blade reported that an earlier Schumer recommendation of an out gay attorney for the Southern District bench, Daniel Alter, was rejected because of comments he made that the White House considered controversial. In articles from 2004 and 2005, Alter was quoted saying favorable things about a lawsuit challenging the use of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and about retailers choosing “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas” as their greeting to customers. The Blade said those remarks weighed more heavily than a letter from 66 attorneys who worked with him in the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District that said his was “a nomination worth fighting for.”

Achtenberg’s nomination to the US Commission on Civil Rights would put her on a eight-member panel — half appointed by the president, half by Congress, for six-year terms — which has broad investigatory powers, but no enforcement authority over specific cases.

When she was appointed assistant secretary for fair housing within the Department of Housing and Urban Development by Clinton in 1993, she became the first out lesbian or gay presidential appointee to win Senate confirmation, despite the opposition of the late North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, who said he would not vote for “that damned lesbian.” Achtenberg later served the Clinton administration as a senior advisor to the HUD secretary.

Achtenberg was a civil rights attorney when she helped found the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights in 1977. She later served on that city’s Board of Supervisors. In 1995, Achtenberg made an unsuccessful run for mayor of San Francisco, and between 1997 and 2004 held senior policy positions at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and its Center for Economic Development.

She currently is a corporate advisor and a trustee of the University of California.

Achtenberg is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and has a law degree from the University of Utah.

Levi currently heads up the Trust for America's Health, a non-profit focused on making disease prevention a national priority, and teaches at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. The advisory group he will join was created under the Obama administration’s 2010 health care reform law.

After working to secure AIDS funding on behalf of NGLTF beginning in 1983, he went on to lead the group as executive director. He served for two years as deputy director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy during the Clinton administration and before that was the associate editor of the American Journal of Public Health.

He is a graduate of Oberlin College, and holds a master’s degree from Cornell University and a Ph.D. from George Washington University.