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The judge behind the scramble in the Perry case | Hunter of Justice

The judge behind the scramble in the Perry case

by on August 19, 2009  •  In Marriage

When lawsuits are filed in federal court, judges are assigned by random.  When Ted Olson and David Boies filed the Perry lawsuit challenging Prop 8, they drew Judge Vaughn Walker, a maverick in many senses of the word.  From the SF Chronicle:

Mn-walker12_ph1_0500356003 Back in 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated San Francisco corporate lawyer Vaughn Walker as a federal judge and ran into a wave of local opposition. Gay rights advocates were seething about Walker's representation of the U.S. Olympic Committee in a lawsuit that prevented a local group from calling its athletic competition the Gay Olympics. To secure legal fees, he attached a lien to the home of Tom Waddell, the group's AIDS-stricken founder, and removed the lien only after Waddell died.

Other foes cited his membership in the all-male Olympic Club or simply questioned why the city needed another white male pillar of the establishment on the bench. It took nearly two years – and two renominations by Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush – for the Senate to confirm him.

Times have changed since then, and perhaps Walker has, too. Or perhaps, as some of his supporters maintained, the big-firm lawyer who was merely following his clients' orders would look much different when he was a judge issuing his own orders.

Few would have predicted that Walker would be the judge who provided life support for suits challenging President George W. Bush's wiretapping program. Or that he would advocate decriminalization of drugs.

Walker, now the chief judge of the U.S. judicial district in San Francisco, is also the jurist who will hear the federal lawsuit over Proposition 8…. "I couldn't think of a better guy to hear it," said Terence Hallinan, the San Francisco lawyer and former district attorney who as a city supervisor spoke out against Walker's court nomination in 1988. "He's independent, he's smart and he's unpredictable. …He doesn't think the government should be sticking their nose into people's business any more than necessary."

Admiration for Walker from the left isn't universal. Some advocates of anti-logging protesters whose eyes were swabbed with liquid pepper spray by Humboldt County officers during 1997 sit-ins haven't forgiven him for his handling of their damage suit.

After a jury deadlocked in 1998, Walker dismissed the case, saying no reasonable juror could have found that the officers used excessive force. When an appeals court reinstated the suit, Walker ordered the retrial moved from San Francisco to Eureka. The court overruled him again, noting the North Coast community's strong ties to the logging industry, and removed Walker from the case, which was later settled….

Walker, now 65, has described himself as a Vietnam War protester at the University of Michigan who became a Republican at Stanford Law School. He spent 18 years at the blue-chip firm Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro in San Francisco before his judicial appointment. In a 2008 interview with the Daily Journal, a legal newspaper, he said his legal thinking includes a touch of libertarianism. "I do believe that the important values of our republic maximize individual freedom and liberty consistent with the good order of society," he said.

The comment contained echoes of what might have been his most important ruling, a July 2006 decision allowing customers to sue AT&T for allegedly cooperating in secret Bush administration wiretapping, overruling government arguments that the case risked exposing state secrets. "The compromise between liberty and security remains a difficult one," Walker wrote. "But dismissing this case at the outset would sacrifice liberty for no apparent enhancement of security."

The ruling prompted a federal court panel to assign about 50 wiretapping cases from around the nation to Walker. He dismissed most of them this year because of a new federal law protecting telecommunications companies from liability, but has allowed suits against the government to proceed despite claims by the Bush and Obama administrations that the cases pose risks to national security.

"He's his own guy, not worried about currying favor with anybody – the government, newspapers, other judges," said attorney Dennis Cunningham, who clashed with Walker in the pepper-spray case….

Nominated by presidents who supported the government's war on drugs, Walker balked at mandatory 10-year terms for several small-time dealers in the early 1990s. In 1994, he told the Recorder, a legal newspaper, that his experiences in drug cases had led him to favor decriminalization of all narcotics, "the same course of action we took after Prohibition."

Walker "was willing to stick his neck out," said Harold Rosenthal, a criminal defense lawyer who has won and lost cases in the judge's court. … "He certainly has tested the patience and the legal acumen of the U.S. attorney's office," Joseph Russoniello said in an interview when he was between stints as the San Francisco district's chief federal prosecutor, the job he now holds. He said Walker's attitude was "somewhat refreshing, if you're not the recipient of the odd ruling."

Some of Walker's rulings on regulation of business appear to reflect a similar skepticism about government authority, including a 2000 decision that prevented San Francisco and Santa Monica from limiting bank ATM fees.

He rejected arguments by Justice Department antitrust lawyers in 2004 and approved Oracle Corp.'s bid to take over a smaller software company, PeopleSoft. And in 2000, despite reservations, he approved Hearst Corp.'s purchase of The Chronicle.

He is also known for creative sentencing, notably in a 2003 order that required a San Francisco mail thief to stand outside a post office for a day wearing a sign that read, "I stole mail. This is my punishment."

No one knows quite what to expect in Walker's courtroom at 450 Golden Gate Ave. But win or lose, it's usually interesting, said Ed Swanson, a San Francisco criminal defense lawyer. "He's certainly not there to rubber-stamp what anybody has to say," Swanson said.

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