Deborah A. 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 jogger case, died on Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 72.
Her wife, Dr. Gwen Zornberg, said she died unexpectedly of complications after knee replacement surgery.
Judge Batts served for a quarter-century on the United States 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 African-American faculty member at Fordham Law School, where she continued to teach even after she became a judge.
She was a federal prosecutor in New York in the 1980s and early ’90s, when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the 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 she was “very nice,” she said in 2011, but “my view of what a federal judge should be was not what their view of a federal judge should be.”
After Mr. 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 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals told the American Bar Association Journal in 1994.
Among the high-profile cases Judge Batts presided over was the decade-long civil litigation involving the Central Park Five, the youths who were wrongly convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989.
In 2007, Judge 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, Judge Batts sentenced Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a reputed 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.
Judge Batts also oversaw a civil suit against former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey, who had been administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency when she was accused of misleading the public about the risk of toxic air pollution after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. She found that Mrs. Whitman had made statements that were so misleading that they were “conscience-shocking.” An appeals court dismissed the suit in 2008.
Judge Batts was set to preside over the embezzlement trial of Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who is accused of swindling $300,000 from his client, the pornographic film star Stormy Daniels, while he was representing her in her suit against President Donald Trump. (Mr. Avenatti has pleaded not guilty.)
One of Judge Batts’s closest friends, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, recalled on Tuesday that they had both been recommended on the same day for judgeships in the Southern District.
“From that day forward, we became sisters,” Justice 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 Judge Batts’s 25 years on the bench, she appeared with three other openly gay federal judges. The three — J. Paul Oetken, Alison J. Nathan and Pamela K. Chen — said she had been an inspiration.
Judge Batts “literally broke down the closet door and allowed the rest of us to walk through it,” Judge Chen said.
Judge Batts, after hearing them speak, remarked, “There was this lone wolf sitting up here in the Southern District of New York, and I can’t tell you — I can’t tell you how happy I was when I got company.”
Deborah Anne Batts was born in Philadelphia on April 13, 1947. Her father, Dr. James A. 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 V. (Silas) Batts, was a nurse and then a homemaker, raising four girls.
Debbie and her twin sister, Diane, graduated at the top of their class from the elite Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1965.
From there, Debbie 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. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. 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 W. 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.
AtFordham, where she joined the faculty in 1984, she was a mentor to legions of law students in her more than three decades of teaching.
In the Southern District, she worked closely with a mentoring program that seeks to increase diversity among lawyers appointed for indigent defendants, said Anthony L. Ricco, one of the directors.
“Judge Batts passed the baton,” Mr. Ricco said in an interview. “She made sure that in her position as a judge, she created opportunities for people coming behind her.”
Ms. Batts had grown up believing she was heterosexual, Dr. Zornberg, her wife, said in an interview. She married a man and had children, but they divorced. “It was an evolution for her,” Dr. Zornberg said. “She evolved and society evolved.”
By the time Senator Moynihan suggested she apply for a judgeship, she was open about her sexuality.
“Debbie was always very clear and straightforward about who she was,” Dr. Zornberg said. “She was who she was with complete integrity.”
Judge Batts married Dr. Zornberg in 2011. In addition to her, Judge Batts is survived by her children, Alexandra S. McCown and James Ellison McCown; two grandsons; and her sisters, Mercedes Ellington, Diane Batts Morrow and Denise I. Batts.
Despite her busy schedule, Judge Batts made time to help former prisoners, working evenings as part of a Southern District program called RISE aimed at reducing recidivism among at-risk offenders.
On a recent Saturday, as Judge Batts was recovering in a Manhattan rehabilitation center after her knee surgery, a fellow judge, Denise Cote, visited and found her in bed, finishing a letter of recommendation for a former inmate who was seeking housing.
Judge Cote said in an interview that it was typical of Judge Batts that even in these circumstances, she was helping someone else.
“She had decided that the landlord needed to know he was reliable and responsible even though he was in prison recently,” Judge Cote said.
Judge Colleen McMahon, the Southern District’s chief judge, said the attention that Judge Batts paid to former inmates was among her greatest contributions.
“Judge Batts’s devotion to these individuals and to their rehabilitation earned their loyalty and trust,” she said in a statement. “Deborah Batts was a trailblazer in every respect.”
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