Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—December 31

2009—Judge Vaughn Walker, the chief judge of the Northern District of California, issues a notice concerning a proposed revision of the local rule barring public broadcasting of judicial proceedings and calls for public comments to be submitted within five business days. Why the rush? Walker is presiding over the challenge to California’s Proposition 8, the voter initiative that restored the state’s traditional definition of marriage (in reaction against a lawless state supreme court ruling). His New Year’s Eve surprise is a critical step in his effort to turn the case into a high-profile, culture-transforming, history-making, Scopes-style show trial of Proposition 8’s supporters. Broadcasting the upcoming trial would generate much greater publicity for ringmaster Walker’s circus and would also surely heighten the prospect that witnesses and attorneys supporting Proposition 8 would face harassment, intimidation and abuse.

Two weeks later, the Supreme Court blocks Walker’s kangaroo-court procedures. The per curiam majority opinion issues a stinging rebuke of Walker’s shenanigans:

The District Court attempted to change its rules at the eleventh hour to treat this case differently than other trials in the district. Not only did it ignore the federal statute that establishes the procedures by which its rules may be amended, its express purpose was to broadcast a high-profile trial that would include witness testimony about a contentious issue. If courts are to require that others follow regular procedures, courts must do so as well.

2009—By a vote of 4 to 3, the Montana supreme court rules (in Baxter v. Montana) that a physician who assists a patient in committing suicide cannot be prosecuted for the crime of aiding a person to commit suicide because the patient’s consent to the physician’s assistance provides a complete defense. The majority invokes a general statute that establishes consent as a defense to criminal charges and holds that the exception under that statute for conduct against public policy doesn’t apply. But, as the dissent argues, Montana law has expressly prohibited assisting suicide for over a century, so assisted suicide is plainly against public policy and the defense of consent is therefore not available.

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