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Deborah Batts, the nation’s first openly gay federal judge, dies at 72

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

Deborah Batts, the nation’s first openly gay member of the federal judiciary, has died. She was 72.

Batts died in her sleep on Sunday, according to a news release from Fordham University, which described her as the school’s first African-American faculty member. The cause of death was unclear.

Batts was sworn in as a judge on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1994, after President Bill Clinton nominated her to the bench. She breezed through her Senate confirmation hearings and her sexual orientation did not come up during the process, according to the ABA Journal.

In 2012, Batts retired her position and assumed senior status, providing volunteer service to the courts.

Recently, she was set to oversee the trial of Michael Avenatti, who was charged in Manhattan with stealing about $300,000 of his ex-client Stormy Daniels’ book advance.

“From her time as an (Assistant US Attorney ) in our Criminal Division through her path-breaking appointment to the federal bench more than 25 years ago, Judge Batts was a relentless stalwart for justice,” Nicholas Biase, a spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement. “She will be deeply missed by our Office, in the courthouse and across the legal community.”

She’s been described as a trailblazer

Batts has often been described as a trailblazer for women, African-Americans and LGBTQ people. But though she broke barriers when she was appointed to the federal judiciary, she told the New York Law Journal in 1994 that she did not want to be known by any one facet of her identity.

“I’m a mother. I’m an African-American. I’m a lesbian. I’m a former professor. If people assume anyone of these aspects is going to predominate, it would create a problem,” Batts said at the time.

Batts got her start in 1972 as a clerk for then federal Judge Lawrence Pierce who served on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. She worked in private practice from 1973 until 1979, when she became an Assistant US Attorney in the Southern District of New York in the Criminal Division. In 1984, she joined Fordham University as a law professor.

“Judge Batts was a beloved member of our community and will be greatly missed. We are grateful to her for her brilliance, passion and friendship. As the first African American woman to receive tenure and the first openly LGBTQ federal judge, she broke barriers and opened doors,” Matthew Diller, Dean of Fordham Law School, said in a statement.

Batts became a tenured professor at Fordham in 1990, though she resigned her tenure the year she was nominated to the federal judiciary. She later returned to the school as an adjunct professor.

“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. We will miss her sharp sense of humor and the joy that she took in life,” Diller said.

‘A champion for justice’

New York officials described her as a “champion for justice” and a “fighter for progress.”

“Deborah Batts was a trailblazer for women and the LGBTQ community — and above all else a champion for justice. On behalf of the city she served, I offer our deepest condolences to her family, friends and all who knew and loved her,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Twitter.

“Judge Batts was a trailblazer who broke new ground and inspired many NYers and young lawyers to fight for justice,” Rep. Nydia Velazquez wrote. “She also previously swore me in at a community swearing-in event. She was a friend and fighter for progress. She will be profoundly missed.”

Batts received her bachelor’s degree from Radcliffe College in 1969, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1972, where she was on the editorial board of the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

Batts, a native of Philadelphia, is survived by her wife, Dr. Gwen Zornberg, and her children, James and Alexandra McCown.

CNN’s Brian Vitagliano contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on CNN.

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