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9th Circuit Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt Dies at 87

Judge Stephen Reinhardt listens to arguments on gay marriage bans in 2014. (Jeff Chiu / AP)

Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals died Thursday of a heart attack at age 87, a court spokesperson said. Reinhardt, a Jimmy Carter appointee, was known as the “liberal lion” of the federal circuit courts. His death creates a vacancy in the judiciary for the Trump administration to fill.

Reinhardt’s history as a judge was indeed left-leaning. He joined another judge in ruling that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional (a decision that was later overturned). He also ruled that laws prohibiting physician-assisted suicide were unconstitutional, as well as prison overcrowding in California. He was part of a three-judge panel in 2012 that struck down California’s Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of the state’s same-sex couples to marry.

“All parties agree that Proposition 8 had one effect only,” he wrote. “It stripped same-sex couples of the ability they previously had possessed to obtain from the state, or any other authorized party, an important right—the right to obtain and use the designation of ‘marriage’ to describe their relationships. Nothing more, nothing less.”

According to the Los Angeles Times:

His rulings in favor of criminal defendants, minorities and immigrants were often overturned by the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court.

Many lawyers have joked that Reinhardt’s name on a ruling was probably enough to get the attention of the conservatives on the Supreme Court. In 1996, after Reinhardt was reversed several times by the Supreme Court, The Times asked him if he was upset.

“Not in the slightest!” he boomed. “If they want to take away rights, that’s their privilege. But I’m not going to help them do it.”

No matter how many reversals he endured, Reinhardt used the bench to try to help the underdog. Just a few months ago, he called The Times to read a reporter a letter from a woman who had just been released from prison and who wanted to thank him for ruling in her favor.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “He was a giant not just on the 9th Circuit but within the law. He also was a judge with a particular vision of the law, based on enforcing the Constitution to protect people.”

Thomas Saenz, a former clerk under Reinhardt and president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the judge a “powerful force for what is good and righteous in a court system that too often strays from the path of justice.”

Truthdig columnist Bill Blum added:

They don’t make judges like Reinhardt anymore, at least not on the left. Where others are timid and tentative, he was bold, innovative and completely unafraid. I got to know him not only from afar as an attorney interested in advancing civil rights and protecting civil liberties, but up close as a writer, penning a 2003 cover story about him for California Lawyer magazine, titled “The Last Liberal.” I closed that article with a quote from him that I will never forget:

“‘My theory about life,” Reinhardt told me, “is that we live in an evolutionary world—society progresses gradually toward enlightenment. But it doesn’t necessarily move in a steady line. There are up periods and down periods. The fact that we’re in a down period at the moment doesn’t mean that progress has stopped.”

I may be a little naive, but even after all these years, I still agree with him. The great tragedy now is not only that Reinhardt has passed away, but that Donald Trump will get to name his successor.

Reinhardt was openly critical of the Trump administration. In 2017, when the 9th Circuit refused to rehear the travel ban case, he said, “I am proud to be a part of this court and a judicial system that is independent and courageous, and that vigorously protects the constitutional rights of all, regardless of the source of any efforts to weaken or diminish them.”

Reinhardt also spoke against the Trump administration for deporting a coffee farmer who had built a business in Hawaii.

In an opinion published by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in May 2017, Reinhardt wrote, “President Trump has claimed that his immigration policies would target the ‘bad hombres.’ The government’s decision to remove [Andres] Magana Ortiz shows that even the ‘good hombres’ are not safe.”

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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