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First Openly Gay Federal Judge Deborah Batts Dies (2)

Feb. 3, 2020, 7:20 PMUpdated: Feb. 3, 2020, 10:28 PM

District Judge Deborah Batts, the first openly gay federal judge and a trailblazer for diversity in the judiciary, has died.

She was 72 and served in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which includes Manhattan.

Zach Stern, spokesman for the SDNY, confirmed Batts’s death. Additional details weren’t immediately available.

She was currently overseeing a case against celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti over allegations he stole a book advance from his adult-film star client, Stormy Daniels.

Colleagues remembered Batts as a spirited and devoted colleague.

“Deborah Batts was a trailblazer in every respect: an openly gay African-American woman who became a United States District Judge after a distinguished career as a federal prosecutor and law professor,” the SDNY’s chief judge, Colleen McMahon, said in a statement.

“She will be remembered by her colleagues for her devotion to the work of the court, for her mentorship of a cadre of young lawyers of all backgrounds, and for her infectious smile and extraordinary collegiality,” McMahon said.

Judge Jed Rakoff, a senior judge on the SDNY, knew Batts for over 45 years. “What made her sunny disposition so remarkable was that, as a gay black woman, she had had to overcome so much prejudice; but hers was a life of victory, and love,” Rakoff said in an email.

Batts was born in Philadelphia and was a graduate of Radcliffe College and Harvard Law School. Batts began her career at Cravath, Swaine & Moore and later became a federal prosecutor in the criminal division of the Southern District of New York.

Before becoming a judge, Batts was a tenured professor at Fordham University School of Law and continued to teach in an adjunct capacity throughout her service as a federal judge.

Batts was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and in 2012, took senior status.

Henry M. Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association, said that she remained engaged in the law even in semi-retirement, which allowed her to take a lighter caseload.

“She will be deeply missed by all New Yorkers as a judge’s judge,” Greenberg said.

—With assistance from Bob Van Voris (Bloomberg).

(Updates with comments from Henry Greenberg in the 12th and 13th paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at; John Crawley at