Monday, February 25, 2019
Today the Supreme Court decided Yovino v. Rizo, issuing a per curiam opinion that begins:
A judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt, died on March 29, 2018, but the Ninth Circuit counted his vote in cases decided after that date. In the present case, Judge Reinhardt was listed as the author of an en banc decision issued on April 9, 2018, 11 days after he passed away. By counting Judge Reinhardt’s vote, the court deemed Judge Reinhardt’s opinion to be a majority opinion, which means that it constitutes a precedent that all future Ninth Circuit panels must follow. See United States v. Caperna, 251 F. 3d 827, 831, n. 2 (2001). Without Judge Reinhardt’s vote, the opinion attributed to him would have been approved by only 5 of the 10 members of the en banc panel who were still living when the decision was filed. Although the other five living judges concurred in the judgment, they did so for different reasons. The upshot is that Judge Reinhardt’s vote made a difference. Was that lawful?
The answer is no. The opinion concludes:
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.
We therefore grant the petition for certiorari, vacate the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.