SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The appointment of Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Richard Walker to the bench was held up for two years during the late 1980s in part because he had angered gay rights activists.
Now, he is presiding over the most important gay civil rights case in a generation.
Like a lot of powerful people, Walker is a profile in fragments, a figure sketched from rare interviews, his work product and his colleagues’ carefully chosen anecdotes.
“Vaughn is a very creative thinker,” said former San Francisco County Superior Court Judge James Warren, who has known Walker since they worked together at Pillsbury Madison & Sutro during the mid-1970s. “He has no problem disagreeing with you and coming up with his own ideas.”
In 2003, for example, Walker sentenced a mailbox thief to write apology letters to his victims and to spend a day outside a post office wearing a sandwich board reading, “I stole mail. This is my punishment?”
Friends said he loves traveling to exotic places — most recently Patagonia — and turns photos from his trips into wickedly funny Christmas cards.
Because Walker is presiding over the trial to determine if California’s ban on same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution, the 65-year-old Republican jurist — private by nature and circumspect by profession — is not speaking for himself.
The anecdotes from friends and colleagues are the tea leaves from which observers try to divine how Walker is leaning in the first federal trial to examine a state ban on same-sex marriage. The proceedings resume Tuesday.
Lawyers for the sponsors of California’s voter-enacted Proposition 8 complained last week that they had detected bias in the judge’s pretrial rulings. Conservative commentators accused him of promoting “a show trial in a kangaroo court” before the U.S. Supreme Court put the kibosh on Walker’s plan to broadcast the trial.
Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said looking for clues in the judge’s background or actions thus far in the case is probably fruitless. Cohn remembers how Walker surprised the San Francisco civil liberties group by ruling several times in recent years against the Republican administration and lawyers from his old blue chip law firm in cases arising from the warrantless wiretapping program.
“If you are going to try to make assumptions based on how he’s ruled in the past or the firm that he came from, you will be wrong,” Cohn said. “He is his own guy.”
Walker, 65, was born in Watseka, Ill., a speck of a county seat 92 miles south of Chicago. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he spent a year at the University of California, Berkeley on a fellowship for future college teachers. He wound up attending Stanford law school, earning his degree in 1970.
It was at Stanford during the Vietnam War protests, Walker has said in published interviews, that he became a committed Republican. He spent two years clerking for a federal judge appointed by President Richard Nixon before moving to San Francisco to start his 18-year career at Pillsbury, where he represented the National Rifle Association in a successful effort to overturn a local law prohibiting residents from owning pistols.
Walker first was nominated to a federal judgeship in the waning days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and then again in the early days of President George H.W. Bush. He was finally confirmed by the Senate in 1989.
Gay leaders lobbied against Walker because he helped the U.S. Olympic Committee sue a gay ex-Olympian who had created an athletic competition called the Gay Olympics. Walker aggressively pursued legal fees in the Olympics case, attaching a $97,000 lien to the home of founder Tom Waddell, who was dying of AIDS.
“A lawyer acting in a professional way must divorce himself from personal views,” Walker told The New York Times in 1988.
Former U.S. District Judge Fern Smith, who worked with Walker in the Northern District of California, said the episode demonstrates his commanding internal compass.
“He seems to be relatively willing to let the chips fall where they may,” Smith said. “He is not afraid to express his opinions, even if he knows there might be substantial push-back.”
During his time as a federal judge, Walker has ruled in at least two cases involving gay rights issues. In one, he dismissed a lawsuit by two Oakland city employees who alleged their free speech rights were violated when managers removed a bulletin board flier for a religious group that promoted “natural family, marriage and family values.”
The city had “significant interests in restricting discriminatory speech about homosexuals. . . .(and has) a duty under state law to prevent workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” Walker wrote in his 2005 ruling.
In the other case, Walker in 1999 rejected arguments from the parents of a San Leandro boy who claimed their religious rights were violated by pro-gay comments their son’s teacher had made in the classroom.
Walker has now been a judge longer than a lawyer. Tall and fit, with silver hair and Van Dyke beard, he is said to be a stickler for details and decorum, a hard worker whose eyes twinkle mischievously when he gets a laugh. But he does not hesitate to register his consternation with crossed arms or a furrowed brow.
“He does not suffer fools lightly,” said Edward Burg, a Los Angeles litigator who sued the city of Half Moon Bay in a property dispute with a developer to whom Walker awarded $36.8 million in damages, almost bankrupting the beach town.
His qualities were in evidence last week as lawyers in the gay marriage case questioned academic experts on subjects ranging from same-sex parenting to whether monogamy in marriage was a relatively recent goal.
As a Harvard historian was explaining how the public’s shoulder shrug over President Bill Clinton’s infidelities marked a shift “toward the idea that spouses themselves are best-equipped to decide what is acceptable behavior within marriage,” the judge cut her off.
“I don’t know that we need to go into Bill and Hillary Clinton in any great depth,” he quipped.