Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Darrin P. Gayles reached an American milestone Tuesday when the U.S. Senate confirmed him as a federal judge, making Gayles the first openly gay black male jurist to sit on the bench.
The vote was 98-0.
Gayles has served on the Florida Circuit Court since 2011 and before on the Miami-Dade County Court, beginning in 2004. He graduated from George Washington University School of Law.
In February, President Barack Obama nominated Gayles and White House officials noted that he would be the first openly gay male African-American federal judge. That distinction had previously generated political opposition to the president's nomination of another Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge.
Last year, Obama's appointment of state Circuit Judge William L. Thomas as a federal judge for the Southern District of Florida ran into a dead end. He was not renominated this year. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, the conservative Republican from Miami, blocked Thomas’ appointment — after first backing him along with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
Rubio's opposition to Thomas stirred accusations of racism and homophobia. Rubio's office said it put a stranglehold on Thomas' confirmation because of his apparent softness in a pair of controversial DUI and murder cases — a characterization sharply disputed by Thomas supporters.
Thomas' nomination was never heard by the U.S. Senate because of Rubio's opposition.
After Gayles’ nomination, Rubio expressed no opposition to his appointment to sit on the Southern District of Florida bench, which hears civil and criminal cases from Key West to Fort Pierce.
On Tuesday, advocacy groups praised the Senate’s confirmation of Gayles.
“He is a dedicated professional. Whip smart. He’s everything you’d want in a judge in terms of experience and temperament,” said Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith, on behalf of the Florida Why Courts Matter coalition. “It’s a testament to his extraordinary qualifications and how far we've come as a society that racism and homophobia haven’t been used to try to hold him back.” In 2011, Gayles and three other LGBT Miami-Dade judges appeared on the cover of Clarity, the magazine of the Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
“He’s accomplished a lot under GOP scrutiny. That speaks a lot to himself and how he conducts himself. To be approved 98-0 in a place that unbelievably contentious is phenomenal. It’s almost unheard of,” said Steve Adkins, the chamber's president and a longtime friend. “He’s always been a really grounded individual and a super guy.”
Miami Herald staff writer Steve Rothaus contributed to this report.