Phila. judge confirmed by U.S. Senate is first-ever openly gay Hispanic female to sit on federal judiciary
Up until recently, Nitza Quinones Alejandro was likely unknown outside of the commonwealth’s borders. Then came Thursday’s news that the United States Senate confirmed the Pennsylvania state judge to the federal bench in Philadelphia. After the federal legislators cast their voice votes, Quinones Alejandro became known the country over as the first openly gay Hispanic woman ever confirmed to the federal judiciary. The soon-to-be-former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge was one of three of President Obama’s nominees confirmed this week to open seats on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the other being Berks County Common Pleas Court President Judge Jeffrey Schmehl and U.S. Magistrate Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo. The jurists will soon take their respective places on a federal bench that covers Philadelphia and eight other surrounding Pennsylvania counties. The news of Quinones Alejandro’s confirmation in particular drew widespread attention because of its significance. In a story in the Washington Blade, which bills itself as the country’s leading gay news source, Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, was quoted as saying his organization is “very pleased to see yet another highly qualified, openly-LGBT nominee confirmed to the federal bench – particularly a woman of color who helps reflect the diversity of the American people in the judiciary.” The article says that Quinones Alejandro, a native of Puerto Rico, is the seventh openly LGBT person ever to receive confirmation as a federal judge. Quinones Alejandro, Schmehl and Restrepo were among the three nominees put forward by President Obama back in late November. The president re-nominated the judges for seats on the Eastern District of Pennsylvania at the start of the 2013 Congress in January. Restrepo is currently a magistrate judge at the Eastern District. In a statement issued in late November, Obama said the three nominees have had “distinguished legal careers and I am honored to ask them to continue their work as judges on the federal bench.” In the statement issued by the White House, the president went on to say that he believes the jurists would “serve the American people with integrity and an unwavering commitment to justice.” Quinones Alejandro has been a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge since 1991, according to a bio provided by the White House. She has also worked as a staff attorney for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and as an attorney advisor for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She began her legal career with a two-year stint as a staff attorney for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia back in the mid-1970s. Quinones Alejandro earned her law degree from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law. In a joint statement issued on June 13, both of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senators, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, praised the bipartisan vote to confirm the three nominees to the federal bench. “I’m pleased that the Senate has come together in a bipartisan fashion to confirm Nitza Quinones Alejandro and Jeffrey Schmehl to the federal bench,” Casey, a Democrat, said in the statement. “Both of these newly confirmed judges are legal scholars with excellent track records.” Casey singled out Quinones Alejandro in particular, calling her a “true American success story,” and stating that the jurist’s two decades on the Philadelphia bench have more than prepared her for a career at the U.S. District Court. Toomey, a Republican, also expressed pleasure that his colleagues voted to confirm the three judges, saying that since he joined the Senate, he has worked closely with Casey to fill Pennsylvania’s judicial vacancies with “qualified, experienced judges with unquestioned honest, ability and integrity,” and that he believes both Quinones Alejandro and Schmehl meet those requirements. The two are currently state judges while Restrepo is already a federal jurist. Toomey also said he is proud that Quinones Alejandro will be the first Latina judge to ever serve in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Schmehl was appointed by his colleagues on the Berks County Common Pleas Court to serve as president judge of that bench in 2008. In his statement, Toomey said Schmehl, who helped veterans in need of legal assistance by working to establish a veterans court in Berks County, has a “passion for the law and will be a dedicated jurist.” Toomey said he is particularly pleased that Schmehl would be sitting in the Eastern District’s courthouse in Reading, Berks County, “which has long needed a new judge.” Reading is about an hour's drive from Philadelphia. According to an online biography, Schmehl was first elected to the Berks County Common Pleas Court in 1998. He previously worked as both an associate and partner at the law firm of Rhoda, Stoudt & Bradley. During that time, Schmehl also served as Berks County’s Solicitor. Schmehl has also served as both an assistant district attorney and assistant public defender in Berks County. He obtained his law degree from the University of Toledo School of Law. Restrepo has been a magistrate judge at the Eastern District of Pennsylvania since 2006, presiding over both civil and criminal matters. He previously served as a named partner at the firm Krasner & Restrepo, as an assistant federal defender in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and as an assistant defender with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Restrepo began his legal career as a law clerk at the National Prison Project. He is a graduate of the Tulane Law School.