The Interview: Judge Vaughn Walker

Retired Federal Judge Vaughn Walker opens up to NBC Bay Area's Raj Mathai about the historic Prop 8 case

Retired Judge Vaughn Walker may no longer be on the federal bench, but with his signature baritone voice, he still commands attention.

Now in private practice, he looks back at his time as a judge for the Federal District Court with pride, particularly for one of his last cases, Prop 8. "There was an 'Oh blank' moment," Walker said. "I knew it was going to be a hot potato, it would draw a lot of attention. In addition, I had made up my mind that I was going to leave the bench." When the Prop 8 case came up, he decided to put off retiring until after ruling on the case.

As with all federal cases, Prop 8 was randomly assigned to Walker and he took what some people saw as an unusual step of conducting a trial. "In retrospect, the decision to conduct a trial was the right decision because it brought forth issues and brought forth facts in a way that never could have been in an appellate type proceeding," Walker said.

The issue of Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California got personal for Walker, who is gay and in a long-term relationship. "It was quite widely known and indeed publicized during the trial itself and the proponents of Prop 8 said they were not going to raise the issue," Walker recalled. "Well, I figured that was their public position and they would stick to it, but when the judgment went against them, they decided to change their mind and raise it."

Looking back now, Walker sees it as what he called a bit of a Hail Mary. "It's never a good thing to try and disqualify a judge after you've lost." He says he never gave serious thought to recusing himself. "I didn't want to leave the impression that a gay judge couldn't decide on an issue touching on gay rights impartially in the same way that an African American judge cannot be required to recuse himself or herself on the issues of race or a female judge from a gender case." 

Walker wanted to have the trial televised as part of a pilot project the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals approved, but the Supreme Court pulled the plug. As a result, screenwriter Lance Black wrote a play based on the trial transcripts.

"In L.A., Brad Pitt played the judge and the irony of this is that undoubtedly far more people saw that play, which was taken directly from the transcript of the trial than would have ever sat through all three weeks of the trial itself," Walker said. "That was an unintended and somewhat surprising benefit of the Supreme Court decision not to allow video transmission of the Prop 8 trial."

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