Supreme Court reverses Ninth Circuit because … “Federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity”

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in a potentially landmark Equal Pay Act case, because … “Federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.” In this per curiam decision, the Supreme Court, not surprisingly, held that a judge needs to be alive to issue a ruling in a case.

How could the Ninth Circuit have thought otherwise? It was an exceedingly controversial case. The Ninth Circuit would have split evenly without the deceased judge’s vote, so the Ninth Circuit, oddly, decided to go ahead and count his vote. In fairness he had expressed his intent to vote one way, and had actually authored an opinion accordingly. He unfortunately passed away though before the opinion was issued. The Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit erred by continuing to count his vote (in this case and others). The Court explained that a judge’s vote cannot be counted until an opinion is filed, especially because “a judge may change his or her position up to the very moment when a decision is released.”

Because Judge Reinhardt was no longer a judge at the time when the en banc decision in this case was filed, the Ninth Circuit erred in counting him as a member of the majority. That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death.  But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.

The underlying case is very controversial. As explained in a previous blog post, the issue has the potential to bring a pay-history ban to all 50 states by way of federal common law, by interpreting the longstanding Equal Pay Act as effectively banning inquiries and consideration of pay history.

per curiam decision is a decision issued by a court with more than one judge (like the Supreme Court and other appellate courts) that is authored by the court itself, without identifying one or more individual judge’s contributions to the writing of the opinion or even votes in the case. It is not signed by anyone judge (though individual judges may, if they choose, sign dissents).

Source: Yovino v. Rizo, 586 U.S. —, case no. 18-272 (2/25/19)

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