The New Jersey Commission on Civil Rights approved the nominee for the director of the state’s Division on Civil Rights last week, despite criticism by several public figures that the new pick may not have enough experience in LGBT issues.
The commission voted 6-0, with one abstention, to approve Chinh Q. Le as the new head of the agency July 22. New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram nominated Le, a practitioner-in-residence at Seton Hall University School of Law’s Center for Social Justice, to the position earlier this month.
Le previously served as assistant counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense & Education Fund.
C. Carlos Bellido took over as the acting director of the division after openly gay former division head Frank Vespa-Papaleo resigned in January.
“Chinh Le has an extraordinary background and commitment to justice and civil rights,” Milgram said in a statement. “His experience and involvement in the important social and civil issues facing our state make him well-qualified to lead the division.”
State Sens. Nicholas Scutari (D) and Raymond Lesniak (D), however, were not as enthusiastic about the new director. Prior to Le’s confirmation, the pair sent a letter to the commission and to Gov. Jon Corzine, requesting a halt to the approval process.
In the letter, the senators argued that Le “has either done no advocacy on gay issues or he deems them not important enough to mention in his profile.”
Le told PGN this week that he cannot comment on his new position until he begins working later this summer, but provided a statement he gave to the commission during his confirmation hearing.
“Although there have been some questions raised in recent days about my commitment to LGBT rights, let me be clear: I am personally committed to these issues,” Le said, noting that he and his wife have donated to such LGBT organizations as Queers for Economic Justice, Empire State Pride Agenda and the Human Rights Campaign.
“I am thrilled by the prospect of now working affirmatively on behalf of the state to enforce these rights that I have a proven record of supporting.”
The senators asserted that Le’s record on LGBT issues pales in comparison to that of Vespa-Papaleo, whom they contended Milgram “forced out” of the position. Scutari and Lesniak also protested the fact that Le, who recently moved to Jersey City from Brooklyn, is not licensed to practice law in New Jersey. As director of the division, however, he will not be required to personally try cases.
Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, echoed the senators’ sentiments that Vespa-Papaleo did not leave of his own accord, which he said further fueled his concerns over the appointment of the new director, a “complete unknown” to the state’s LGBT community.
“It’s an open secret that the attorney general forced out the previous director, who was the highest-ranking openly gay agency head in New Jersey and was without a doubt the finest director of civil rights this state has ever seen,” Goldstein said. “Frank revolutionized the agency and was beloved and respected across the state, far beyond just those in the gay community. For a state that does not yet have equality, a state where our civil-union law is being disrespected left and right by employees and hospitals across the state who refuse to recognize civil unions as the equivalent of marriage, the position of the director of civil rights is extremely, extremely important. I don’t think this process should have been rushed.”
Vespa-Papaleo, who is currently serving as senior counsel to the Office of the Public Advocate, could not be reached for comment.
“Our concerns have nothing to do with Chinh Le himself,” Goldstein said. “Every indication is that he is a first-rate lawyer with excellent credentials. It’s merely the atmosphere in which Mr. Le was appointed.”
Goldstein said he’s looking to set up a meeting with Le in the coming weeks to discuss his views on LGBT issues in New Jersey, and that the “LGBT community in the state and Garden State Equality are looking forward to building a close working relationship with him.”