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Meet Judge Beth Robinson, the first out lesbian to serve on any federal circuit court

Vermont Supreme Court Justice Beth Robinson takes the oath of office on Monday, Nov. 28, 2011, in Montpelier, Vt. The U.S. Senate confirmed her nomination to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday.
Toby Talbot
Vermont Supreme Court Justice Beth Robinson takes the oath of office on Monday, Nov. 28, 2011, in Montpelier, Vt. The U.S. Senate confirmed her nomination to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday.

The Senate met yesterday to vote on the nomination of Justice Beth Robinson to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lawmakers confirmed her by a 51-45 vote, with four abstaining and two Republicans — Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine — voting in favor. She will soon be the first openly LGBT woman to serve on any federal district court, according to the White House.

Robinson, 56, was among President Biden's sixth round of judicial nominees in August. She has been an associate justice on the Vermont Supreme Court since 2011 and is well-known in the state for her earlier work as a lawyer in the landmark case that effectively legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

Elected Vermont officials on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly supported her nomination, Sen. Patrick Leahy said in a statement. He and Sen. Bernie Sanders both offered their praise and congratulations to Robinson after the vote.

"As an advocate, Beth Robinson has been rightfully hailed as a tireless champion for equal rights and equal justice," Leahy said. "But more importantly, her record as a Vermont Supreme Court Justice clearly demonstrates her fairness, impartiality, and loyalty to the rule of law, above all else."

Leahy went on to highlight some of Robinson's accomplishments prior to her time on the bench.

She worked pro bono as a co-counsel to the plaintiffs in Baker v. State, which successfully challenged Vermont's prohibition on same-sex marriage to make it the first state to enact civil unions in the country.

As a litigator, he said, Robinson's work "served as a blueprint for LGBTQ advocacy across the country." She represented an employee of the University of Vermont who sought recognition of his Canadian marriage to a same-sex partner for health insurance purposes and a couple seeking recognition of their out-of-state marriage in the context of second-parent adoption, among other cases.

The civil rights organization Lambda Legal hailed Robinson's confirmation as a significant milestone, noting that the LGBTQ community is "woefully underrepresented" in the federal judiciary.

Only 14 out of 870 federal judgeships are held by openly gay or lesbian judges (including Robinson), it added, and there has never been an openly bisexual or transgender judicial nominee.

"Judge Robinson's extraordinary professional expertise makes her well qualified for this important position and her confirmation as the first openly lesbian judge to a federal appeals court seat is cause for celebration for our community," said Sharon McGowan, the organization's chief strategy officer and legal director. "LGBT representation in the courts is critical because judges that more accurately reflect the diversity of our nation give legitimacy to these important institutions, which have such a profound impact on the lives of so many. Judge Robinson's lived and professional experiences will be assets in her work to fulfill our nation's promise of justice."

Robinson received her B.A. from Dartmouth College and her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School. At the start of her career, she clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and as an associate at a D.C. firm focused on white-collar criminal defense.

From 1993 to 2010, she was a civil litigator in private practice at Langrock Sperry & Wool with a focus on employment law, workers' compensation, contract disputes and family law. She served as counsel to former Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin before her appointment to the state supreme court.

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 4, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story said only 13 federal judgeships are held by openly gay or lesbian judges. Based on a revision from Lambda Legal, that number is 14.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.