Prop. 8 judge to retire

Walker's exit expected to have no impact on case moving forward

By Lisa Leff


The federal judge who struck down California's gay marriage ban as unconstitutional this year announced Sept. 29 he is retiring from the bench after 21 years.

Lynn Fuller, a spokeswoman for U.S. District Court in San Francisco, said Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker notified President Barack Obama by letter that he will step down in February.

The 66-year-old judge who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush and has been chief judge of the Northern District of California since 2004, did not state in the letter his reason for stepping down.

"Concluding 21 years of judicial service, I leave the bench with the highest respect and regard for the federal judiciary, its judges and their staff and the essential role they fulfill in our constitutional system," Walker wrote to the president.

Walker this year oversaw the high-profile trial over California's Proposition 8, a voter-approved initiative restricting a marriage to one man and one woman. His August ruling that overturned the law as a violation of gay Californians' civil rights is being challenged by the measure's sponsors in a federal appeals court.

San Francisco Chief Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart, who was part of the legal team that persuaded Walker to strike down the measure, said Walker's exit would not affect the course of the case. Because Walker's ruling included a thorough recounting of the evidence presented at the trial, it's unlikely the appeals court would send the case back to the district court for further proceedings even if it decides he ruled incorrectly, Stewart said.

"I would say it's extremely unlikely an appeal would result in a remand for additional fact-finding and therefore (Walker's retirement) should have little or no impact on the case going forward," she said.

Opponents of gay marriage have strongly criticized Walker since he issued his ruling Aug. 4. Some have suggested he was biased because of persistent rumors that the judge himself is gay. Walker has never publicly discussed his sexual orientation.

Speculation that Walker might leave the bench has circulated since before he was randomly assigned to oversee the Proposition 8 case.

"Because of the pressure of the work on the courts and the failure to fill vacancies and increase the number of judges when the dockets are getting bigger, people wear out and want to move on and have some fun while they are still in good health," Stewart said.

Besides the gay marriage case, Walker has presided over lawsuits challenging the U.S. government's warrantless wiretapping program and a Northern California sheriff department's use of pepper spray to quell tree-sitting logging protesters. He ruled in Microsoft's favor when Apple sued the company for copyright infringement over its Windows operating system.

Walker was born in Watseka, Ill., located 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.

He was a prominent antitrust lawyer before he ascended to the judiciary. In a statement issued by the court, Walker said he plans to return to private practice.

Judge James Ware, who also was appointed by the first President Bush, will assume the role of chief judge of the Northern District on Dec. 31.

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