Judge Stephen Reinhardt ’51, a stalwart of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco who wrote the ruling that ultimately legalized same-sex marriage in California, died March 29, 2018, two days after his 87th birthday.
Known as the “liberal lion” of the federal circuit courts, he was fiercely passionate about the law and protecting the vulnerable. His rulings in defense of criminal defendants, minorities and immigrants were often overturned by the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court.
Among his rulings that the high court overturned were decisions that would have struck down Washington state’s ban on doctors providing aid in dying and a federal law prohibiting a type of midterm abortion that opponents labeled partial-birth abortion. Once, when asked if he was upset by these reversals, he replied: “Not in the slightest. If they want to take away rights, that’s their privilege. But I’m not going to help them do it.”
Born March 27, 1931, in New York as Stephen Shapiro, Reinhardt changed his name after his parents were divorced and his mother remarried. His stepfather was Gottfried Reinhardt, a screenwriter, director and producer whose films included The Red Badge of Courage. His grandfather, Max Reinhardt, was a theatre legend who fled Germany during Nazi rule and gained acclaim in the U.S. for his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl.
Reinhardt once said that the horrors of the Nazis helped shape his conviction about the need to be vigilant in upholding human rights.
A graduate of Yale Law School, Reinhardt was appointed to the federal bench in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. He remained in that role until the time of his death. Previously, he had served as a first lieutenant in the legal counsel’s office of the Air Force, clerked for a federal judge, practiced entertainment and labor law in California, been a member of the Democratic National Committee from California and served on the Los Angeles Police Commission.
“We have lost a wonderful colleague and friend,” said Sidney Thomas, chief judge of the Ninth Circuit, which oversees federal courts in California and eight other Western states. “As a judge, he was deeply principled, fiercely passionate about the law and fearless in his decisions. He will be remembered as one of the giants of the federal bench.”
Two Supreme Court justices were among the many national voices that spoke admiringly of Reinhardt in the wake of his death.
“As a person and as a judge, Stephen Reinhardt was devoted to protecting the powerless and the oppressed,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, “In my 43 years on the bench few, if any, judges with whom it has been my privilege to serve were more dedicated to the cause of justice.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor called him “one of the greatest legal minds of our lifetimes.” She went on to say, “We have lost one of the giants of our federal judiciary—one who cared deeply about the way the law could shape our society and impact our pursuit of justice. Someone like Stephen cannot be replaced. He set an example for judging that anyone with a passion for the good in the law should follow.”