Deborah Batts, Pioneering Lesbian Jurist, Dead at 72

Judge Deborah Batts (center) last June being honored by the Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission on the 25th anniversary of her swearing in on the SDNY bench.
Courtesy of Matthew Skinner/ Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission

Judge Deborah Batts, who sat on the Southern District of New York (SDNY) federal bench since 1994, when she became the first out LGBTQ federal judge given a lifetime appointment, died in her sleep in the overnight hours of February 2-3. The cause of death was not immediately known. Batts was 72.

She is survived by her wife, Dr. Gwen Lois Zornberg, a psychiatrist. The couple married in Washington in 2011 and lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

In a tweet on February 3, Alphonso David, an attorney who is president of the Human Rights Campaign, wrote, “Saddened to hear of the passing of Deborah Batts, a giant of the legal community who blazed new trails for justice and equality. This is a major loss for our judiciary and our movement.”

In a written statement, the LGBT Bar of New York (LeGaL), wrote, “Judge Batts leaves behind a broad legacy for all New Yorkers as a trailblazer and an astute jurist… Her passing is a loss for all of New York.”

Matthew Skinner, the executive director of the New York State Unified Court System’s Richard C. Failla LGBTQ Commission, saying he was “devastated” by news of Batts’ passing, told Gay City News, “She was such a humble giant. She could have taken her ‘first’ status and used it to attract a much greater degree of acclaim. It could not have been easy to be a party of one for nearly 20 years. But I think she was a pretty private person and most interested in doing her day job well, which she did.”

Skinner, whose group honored Batts last June on the 25th anniversary of her swearing in on the Southern District bench, noted that she insisted on being identified as the first out Article III judge in deference to a federal judge appointed before her to a non-lifetime post authorized under other provisions of the Constitution.

Roberta Kaplan, a founding partner at Kaplan Hecker & Fink who represented the late Edie Windsor in her successful 2013 challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, tweeted of Batts’ death, “This is so sad and such a loss for her wife, many friends, clerks, fellow judges, and every litigant in the SDNY.”

Born in Philadelphia, Batts graduated from Radcliffe College in 1969 and from Harvard Law School in 1972. After seven years at Cravath Swaine & Moore, Batts went to work in the US Attorney’s Office, also in New York’s Southern District, in 1979, and five years later joined the faculty at Fordham Law School.

In a written statement, Fordham Law’s dean, Matthew Diller, said, “Since joining the federal bench, we have been fortunate to hold on to her as a superb teacher of trial advocacy and a dear friend. She was a mentor to students and faculty alike.”

According to Arthur S. Leonard, Gay City News’ legal correspondent, prior to her appointment to the federal bench, Batts joined the New York City Bar Association Special Committee on Lesbians and Gay Men in the Legal Profession, which he co-chaired, as an “ally “ to the community but soon came out herself. When New York Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recommended her to President Bill Clinton, she informed the White House team that she was a lesbian and was told that posed no problem in their view. The fact of her being a lesbian never came up in the public confirmation process, though she joked to Leonard that she was fortunate that Richard Nixon’s funeral took place the day of her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing and had all the Republicans away in California.

According to Time Magazine, at the time she told the New York Law Journal that did not want to be known as the “gay judge,” but also said, “I’m a mother, I’m an African American. I’m a lesbian.”

SDNY Chief Judge Colleen McMahon, in a written statement issued February 3, said, “Deborah Batts was a trailblazer in every respect: an openly gay African-American woman who became a United States District Judge after a distinguished career as a federal prosecutor and law professor. It will be difficult to replace her. Our hearts are broken at her premature passing. She will be remembered by her colleagues for her devotion to the work of the court, for her mentorship of a cadre of young lawyers of all backgrounds, and for her infectious smile and extraordinary collegiality.”

Lambda Legal, in a statement praising Batts as “the embodiment of the highest standards of professional excellence,” also took note of her as a role model for African Americans and other people of color in the legal profession. The group’s legal director and chief strategy officer, Sharon McGowan, said, “As we commemorate Black History Month, we acknowledge as well how significant her nomination remains even today for attorneys of color — and particularly Black attorneys — who are still dramatically underrepresented on the federal bench. And more than 25 years after Judge Batts’ historic confirmation, it is unacceptable that there has only ever been one other Black lesbian elevated to the federal bench. While there will never be another Deborah Batts, there are many extraordinary LGBTQ people of color in the legal profession who are far too often overlooked for positions of leadership and public trust, including federal judgeships.  That must change.”

At the time of her death, Batts was due to oversee the embezzlement trial of attorney Michael Avenatti, who had represented Stormy Daniels in her high profile dispute with President Donald Trump and his former attorney Michael Cohen.

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