It would seem obvious that once a judge has died, he couldn’t rule in any new cases.
Yet that was news to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which published an opinion last year by Judge Stephen Reinhardt — 11 days after his death.
The Supreme Court stepped in Monday and overturned that move, saying that while judges have plenty of judicial power, it can’t extend to the grave.
“Federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity,” the court ruled in an unsigned opinion.
The justices sent the case back to the 9th Circuit for a new review.
The case involved the Equal Pay Act. Reinhardt had been part of the court’s 11-member en banc panel, and his opinion was critical. Without him, the ruling would have been 5-5. With his opinion counting, there was a 6-judge majority.
The 9th Circuit said Reinhardt had “fully participated in the case” before his death, his opinion had been written and finalized, and all voting by the judges about how to frame the outcome of the case had been completed prior to his demise.
The Supreme Court, in its brief ruling Monday, said that breaks with precedent that holds judges who retire or go on senior status aren’t able to take part in some rulings.