Deborah Batts, first openly gay federal judge

Ms. Batts served for a quarter-century on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Michael Appleton/New York Times
Ms. Batts served for a quarter-century on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

NEW YORK — Deborah Batts, the first openly gay judge to sit on the federal bench, who presided over prominent cases involving political corruption, terrorism, and the Central Park Five civil case, died Feb. 3 at her home in Manhattan. She was 72.

Her wife, Dr. Gwen Zornberg, said she died unexpectedly of complications after knee replacement surgery.

Ms. Batts served for a quarter-century on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. After her nomination in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, it took 17 years before a second openly gay judge, J. Paul Oetken, was appointed to the federal bench.


She was also the first Black faculty member at Fordham Law School, where she continued to teach even after she became a judge.

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She was a federal prosecutor in New York in the 1980s and early ’90s, when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, suggested that she fill out an application to become a federal judge.

Her application languished through the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The administration thought that while she was “very nice,” she said in 2011, “my view of what a federal judge should be” was not their view.

After Clinton nominated her, however, she sailed onto the bench. The American Bar Association rated her “unanimously qualified.” Her sexual orientation, about which she was open, was not an issue, and the Senate confirmed her on a voice vote. She was sworn in on June 23, 1994, during Gay Pride Week.

“It was like hiring Jackie Robinson, putting him on the field, and no one saying anything about it,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals told the American Bar Association Journal in 1994.


Among the high-profile cases Ms. Batts presided over was the decadelong civil litigation involving the Central Park Five, the youths who were wrongly convicted in the 1989 beating and rape of a female jogger in Central Park.

In 2007, Ms. Batts rejected New York City’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit by the Central Park defendants. In 2014, the city settled, agreeing to pay the men almost $41 million.

In 2010, Ms. Batts sentenced Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a reputed former top adviser to Osama bin Laden, to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to stabbing a federal jail guard while he awaited trial on terrorism charges.

Ms. Batts also oversaw a lawsuit against former governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, who was accused of misleading the public when she was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency about the risk of toxic air pollution after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Ms. Batts found that Whitman had made statements that were so misleading, they were “conscience-shocking.” An appeals court, however, dismissed the suit in 2008.

Ms. Batts was set to preside over the embezzlement trial of Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who is accused of swindling $300,000 from his client, pornographic film star Stormy Daniels, while he was representing her in her suit against President Trump. (Avenatti has pleaded not guilty.)


One of Ms. Batts’s closest friends, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, recalled Tuesday that they had both been recommended on the same day for judgeships in the Southern District.

“From that day forward, we became sisters,” Sotomayor said in a statement to The New York Times. “Most importantly, she lived her life openly and earnestly, with fortitude and conviction.”

In May, during a recorded panel discussion held in Manhattan to commemorate Ms. Batts’s 25 years on the bench, she appeared with three other openly gay federal judges. The three — Oetken, Alison Nathan, and Pamela Chen — said she had been an inspiration.

Ms. Batts “literally broke down the closet door and allowed the rest of us to walk through it,” Chen said.

Deborah Anne Batts was born in Philadelphia on April 13, 1947. Her father, Dr. James Batts Jr., who was a decorated combat surgeon in World War II, was an obstetrician and gynecologist and the director of maternal and infant-care services for the city of Philadelphia. Her mother, Ruth (Silas) Batts, was a nurse and then a homemaker, raising four girls.

Deborah and her twin sister, Diane, graduated at the top of their class from the elite Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1965.

From there, Ms. Batts went to Radcliffe, where she majored in government and was president of the student government organization. She graduated in 1969. She said that the tumult of that decade, with the Vietnam War and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, made her want to pursue social justice and inspired her to study law.

At Harvard Law School, she served on the editorial board of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. After graduating in 1972, she clerked for Judge Lawrence Pierce, a longtime federal judge in New York.

In 1973, she joined the prestigious New York law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore in the litigation department. Six years later, she became a federal prosecutor.

At Fordham, where she joined the faculty in 1984, she was a mentor to legions of law students in her more than three decades of teaching.

As a judge in the Southern District, she worked closely with a mentoring program that seeks to increase diversity among lawyers appointed for indigent defendants, said Anthony Ricco, one of the directors.

Ms. Batts had grown up believing she was heterosexual, Zornberg, her wife, said in an interview. She married a man and had children, but they divorced.

Ms. Batts married Zornberg in 2011. In addition to her, Ms. Batts leaves her children, Alexandra McCown and James Ellison McCown; two grandsons; and her sisters, Mercedes Ellington, Diane Batts Morrow, and Denise Batts.