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U.S. Senate confirms first openly gay federal appeals court judge

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to confirm Todd Hughes to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, making him the first openly gay judge to serve on an appeals court in the United States.

The Senate confirmed Hughes, a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice's civil division, by a vote of 98-0. President Barack Obama nominated him in February after the nomination of another gay nominee stalled.

Hughes has specialized in federal personnel matters, veterans' benefits and international trade.

"I am proud that today the Senate is finally taking this critical step to break down another barrier and increase diversity on our Federal bench," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.

While Hughes is the first openly gay judge on an appellate court, a step below the U.S. Supreme Court, at least seven gay or lesbian judges now serve or have served on federal district courts.

Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group which works to ensure equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, cheered the news.

"As an openly gay man takes to the federal appellate court bench for the very first time, barriers to achievement for the next generation of LGBT young people are crumbling every day," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin.

Hughes graduated from Harvard College in 1989, and received a law degree and a Masters degree in English from Duke University in 1992.

The Federal Circuit hears patent appeals from around the country, including high stakes cases like Apple Inc's smartphone battle against Samsung Electronics Co Ltd. Its docket also includes trademark cases and some claims against the federal government.

The White House had nominated Edward DuMont, who is also gay, for the Federal Circuit in 2010. But the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee did not hold a hearing and DuMont ultimately withdrew, saying some Republicans on the panel opposed his bid.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Ros Krasny and Sandra Maler)

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