Judge Stephen Reinhardt, the ‘Liberal Lion’ of the 9th Circuit, Leaves Behind a Pro-LGBTQ Legacy

Judge Stephen Reinhardt, the ‘Liberal Lion’ of the 9th Circuit, Leaves Behind a Pro-LGBTQ Legacy

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Yesterday, 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt passed away at age 87.

He was responsible for writing the February 2012 ruling that struck down California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in the state. Although revered for that historic ruling, he’s also remembered as a “liberal lion” whose other rulings on abortion helped beat back conservatism’s intrusion into American lives.

You may recall that Proposition 8 came at a pivotal moment in the fight for marriage equality. It passed by a margin of 52% to 47% and was quickly contested in court.

Before Reinhardt’s court got a hold of it, openly gay U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker issued a August 2010 ruling that said Prop. 8 furthered no compelling government interest and provided no rational basis for denying marriage to same-sex couples. As such, it violated the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.

Walker’s decision was appealed to Reinhardt’s court even though the state of California refused to defend the law. Granting the ‘Yes on 8’ campaign legal standing to defend the law in court, the 9th Circuit court heard the case and ruled against Prop. 8.

Reinhardt wrote the ruling but based his reasoning on a more narrow view than Judge Walker’s. He agreed that Prop. 8 violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by targeting a politically unpopular group and taking away a right they had once had under the state’s constitution.

He further wrote that Prop. 8 served no purpose other than to show the majority’s disapproval of LGBTQ relationships, unswayed by court testimony stating that same-sex marriage would reduce heterosexual procreation and child-rearing or protect children or religious liberty.

Although the Supreme Court decided in June 2013 that the ‘Yes on 8’ campaign lacked the legal standing to appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — effectively throwing out Reinhardt’s decision and reverting back to Vaughn’s — his reasoning still helped build strong legal precedent against such same-sex marriage bans nationwide and provided a logical framework with which lawyers could combat them.

Judge Stephen Reinhardt

Judge Stephen Reinhardt also issued other rulings that upheld the right to individual liberty, including a 1996 ruling calling a patient’s right to physician-assisted suicide as “central to personal dignity and autonomy” guaranteed in the Constitution.

He issued a 2003 ruling against a Bush-era federal law prohibiting late-term abortions (a potentially lifesaving procedure for some women), a 2004 ruling stating that government employees should have a right to free speech at the workplace and a 2010 ruling declaring the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance as an unconstitutional establishment of a national religion.

The more conservative United States Supreme Court overturned many of his rulings. But in 1996, when asked by the Los Angeles Times whether he was upset about having his decisions often overruled by the Court, he responded, “Not in the slightest! If they want to take away rights, that’s their privilege. But I’m not going to help them do it.”

Rest in power, Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

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