He was the liberal face of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, 87, died Thursday afternoon, according to a court spokesperson. He had a fatal heart attack during a visit to a dermatologist in Los Angeles.
“All of us here at the 9th Circuit are shocked and deeply saddened by Judge Reinhardt’s death,” 9th Circuit Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas said. “We have lost a wonderful colleague and friend.”
Thomas called Reinhardt “deeply principled, fiercely passionate about the law and fearless in his decisions.”
“He will be remembered as one of the giants of the federal bench. He had a great life that ended much too soon,” Thomas said.
Reinghardt was appointed to the federal circuit court by former President Jimmy Carter. He was known as the “liberal lion” of the federal judicial system. His rulings in favor of criminal defendants, minorities and immigrants were often overturned by the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, some lawyers joked that Reinhardt’s name on a ruling was probably enough to get the attention of the conservatives on the Supreme Court.
When the liberal judge was asked if the Supreme Court reversals upset him, he replied, “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.”
Reinhardt was known for helping the underdog. “He was a giant not just on the 9th Circuit but within the law,” UC Berkeley law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said. “He also was a judge with a particular vision of the law, based on enforcing the Constitution to protect people.”
Reinhardt co-wrote a ruling with another judge declaring that the word, “under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional, a decision that was later overturned.
He wrote a ruling that said laws prohibiting physician-assisted suicide were unconstitutional and another that overturned California’s previous ban on same-sex marriage.
He was one of the federal judges who decided that overcrowding in California’s prison system was unconstitutional.
“His view was to decide cases as he believed the law required, not to predict what the Supreme Court would do,” Chemerinsky said. “He was unapologetic about that.”
For years Reinhardt clashed with then-Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, a conservative elevated to chief justice by President Reagan in 1986.
Rehnquist told one gathering that the 9th Circuit seemed to “have a hard time saying ‘no’ to any litigant with a hard-luck story.”
Reinhardt was offended.
“Many of us feel an obligation to uphold the rights of the citizens against the government,” he replied. “That’s what the Constitution is there for.”
Reinhardt was born with the name Stephen Shapiro. He changed his name after his mother divorced his father and married Gottfried Reinhardt, a screenwriter, director and producer whose films included “The Red Badge of Courage.” His grandfather, Max Reinhardt, was a theater legend who fled Nazi Germany and gained notoriety in the U.S. for his production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Hollywood Bowl.
The judge said in 1996 that the horrors of the Nazis helped form his conviction about the need to be vigilant in upholding human rights.
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund who once clerked for Reinhardt. He 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.”
“His place in history’s judicial firmament is secure, and his legacy in cases, ideas and people has been and will be deep and long-lasting,” Saenz said.
Reinhardt is survived by his wife, Ramona Ripston, who for years headed the ACLU of Southern California; three adult children, Mark Reinhardt, 57, a professor of political science at Williams College; Justin Reinhardt, 52, a musician; and Dana Reinhardt, 47, a novelist; and seven grandchildren.
Will the vacuum left by Reinhardt be filled by a more conservative voice?
Credit: LA Times