Judge Vaughn R. Walker has ruled on cases involving newspaper mergers, high-tech corporate battles and the Bush administration's use of wiretaps without warrants. But nothing has earned him as much attention — and ire — as Wednesday's decision declaring California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
Walker, the 66-year-old chief judge of the Federal District Court of the Northern District of California, is no stranger to controversy. An independent-minded conservative, he has come out publicly in favor of the legalization of drugs, but also ruled in 1996 that the police used reasonable force when they pepper-sprayed antilogging protesters.
The case involving Proposition 8 could ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. Walker stayed his decision temporarily and agreed to consider a longer stay that would last until rulings were issued on appeals by proponents of the law. On Friday, lawyers for gay couples, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and California Attorney General Jerry Brown filed legal motions saying allowing same-sex marriages to resume immediately in the state was the right thing to do.
The outcome of the case cannot be predicted, but jurists could well find themselves constrained by Wednesday's carefully structured decision. His 136-page opinion lays out a rich factual record to suggest that the California law required irrational discrimination. "Proposition 8 places the force of law behind stigmas against gays and lesbians," he wrote.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine, noted that Walker had avoided choosing a tough standard of scrutiny for Proposition 8 that might have been rejected by a higher court. He instead relied on a relatively lenient test, asking whether the law had a rational basis for its discrimination.
Such carefully calibrated, tactical drafting of opinions comes as no surprise to those who have appeared in Walker's courtroom. On the bench, he analyzes each side's arguments with a thoroughness that some advocates say can be unsettling.
Walker was born in Watseka, Ill. He graduated from the University of Michigan and Stanford Law School. President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the federal bench in 1987, but the nomination languished for nearly two years. He was confirmed during the first Bush administration.
Walker was once criticized for being a member of a private club that had refused membership to blacks and women. Gay rights advocates also denounced his representation, as a private lawyer, of the United States Olympic Committee in its efforts to keep another organization from calling itself the Gay Olympics.
Since those days, several published reports have stated that the judge is himself gay. In February, the San Francisco Chronicle called it an "open secret." Walker has declined to discuss the matter.