WASHINGTON (AP) - A judge's elevation to the federal bench could be derailed because she helped preside over a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple four years ago.
Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas has placed a hold on the nomination of Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Janet T. Neff, saying her presence at the 2002 Massachusetts ceremony raises questions about her judicial philosophy.
"It seems to speak about her view of judicial activism," Brownback said Friday. "It's something I want to inquire of her further."
Brownback, a vehement opponent of gay marriage who has presidential ambitions, said he wants to know whether Neff might have presided over "an illegal marriage ceremony" that skirted Massachusetts law. He has asked the Justice Department for a formal legal opinion on Neff's conduct.
Ceremonies marking the union of same-sex couples are usually symbolic events that carry no legal benefits and require no government approval. Massachusetts did not recognize gay marriages in 2002 but legalized same-sex marriage two years later after a ruling from its highest court.
Conservative activists expressed concerns about Neff after seeing her name in a September 2002 New York Times "Weddings/Celebrations" announcement. It said Neff led the commitment ceremony for Karen Adelman and Mary Curtin with the Rev. Kelly A. Gallagher, a minister of the United Church of Christ.
Both women are former employees of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign in Washington.
"When she did the commitment ceremony, she was doing it in her role as a judge, and that draws up a serious question," said Tom McClusky, a spokesman for the Family Research Council, a conservative group. "She would be more sympathetic to an activist on the issue of homosexual marriage."
The Senate Judiciary Committee last week approved Neff for a seat on the U.S. District Court in Michigan's Western District, and the nomination is pending before the full Senate. A single senator can block a nomination from moving forward by placing a hold on it.
Neither Neff nor a White House spokesman returned calls seeking comment on Friday.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who learned about the ceremony this week, said based on the newspaper announcement it didn't sound like Neff did anything illegal.
"There's no reason why two people can't stand up and exchange commitments with each other provided they don't do anything illegal," Levin said.
Brownback cited recent instances in California and New York where local officials issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples contrary to existing laws.
"I don't know what she did," Brownback said. "That's why there's a factual question."
Gay activists call Brownback's inquiry a publicity stunt that is irrelevant to Neff's qualifications.
"This has got nothing to do with legal or ethical concerns by Sam Brownback and everything to do with him finding another opportunity to show himself to be the mean-spirited bigot that he is," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Neff, 61, has served on the Michigan Court of Appeals since 1989. She was nominated by President Bush in June — along with Grand Rapids attorney Robert Jonker and Berrien County Circuit Judge Paul Maloney — to fill three vacancies on the district court.
Levin said Neff was nominated along with Jonker and Maloney as part of an agreement he and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., reached with the White House. Brownback said Neff has a more liberal reputation while Jonker and Maloney are considered conservatives.
McClusky said he doesn't understand why Bush struck a deal to appoint Neff and said the president is going back on his promise to appoint judges in the mold of Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Bush has long advocated a ban on gay marriage. In July, a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage failed to win the needed two-thirds support in both the Senate and House.
Forty-five states have either constitutional amendments banning gay marriage or statutes outlawing same-sex weddings. Twenty states, including Michigan, have approved bans on same-sex marriage, and eight states are considering similar measures in November.
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