John G. Heyburn II
John G. Heyburn II was known as a master of the courtroom, an artful Chief Judge, a leader in funding our Judiciary and a modernizer of the procedures governing the nation’s most complex and intractable lawsuits.
He was described as having a unique blend of grace, authority and humor.
A Behemoth on the Bench
Judge Heyburn presided over 7,645 cases in his 23 years on the bench, including some of the most controversial that faced the courts: recognition of same-sex marriage, restrictions on access to abortion, racial desegregation of our schools, and the scope of First Amendment’s guarantees.
His opinions were known for his indefatigable sense of fairness, respect for litigants, and commitment to clear, logical, and thoughtful rulings. For example, in holding that Kentucky had intentionally discriminated against same-sex couples, he took the unusual step of addressing those with deeply-held religious beliefs who might have difficulty with his opinion. He explained that no tradition or firmly-held belief can be the rationale to deny equal protection to another.
Tumultuous Times Shapes a Future Judge
His passion for history, government and the political process may well have been kindled during his years at Harvard in the late 1960s, where the future judge grappled with the war in Vietnam, race relations, and other issues that challenged America at that time. Judge Heyburn earned his undergraduate degree in history and left Harvard with a cohort of friends whose ties were lifelong.
From 1970 to 1976, Judge Heyburn served as Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves. He received an Honorable Discharge in 1976, the same year he graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law. In law school, he was a member of the National Moot Court Team, a runner-up in the Sixth Circuit Moot Court Competition, and a member of the Order of Barristers (Appellate Advocacy Honorary Society).
On the advice of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell – and with the unusual bipartisan support of then-Senator Wendell Ford – President George H. W. Bush appointed Judge Heyburn to the U.S District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in 1992.
Leadership in the Federal Judiciary
Because of his passion for the rule of law, he rose to leadership in the Third Branch. He served as Chief Judge of the Western District of Kentucky from 2001-2008. Chief Justice Rehnquist appointed him to the Budget Committee for the Judicial Conference in 1994, and named him Chair in 1997.
Through 2004 he led the annual appropriations process for the Federal Judiciary, testifying before various House and Senate subcommittees, as well as consulting with foreign governments and judiciaries about judicial reform and the importance of a strong and independent judiciary.
In 2007, Chief Justice John Roberts appointed him to a seven-year term as Chair of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.
Always determined to improve, he examined and transformed how the Federal Judiciary handled complex cases. Building a coalition of judges on and off the Panel, he streamlined the Panel’s operation, made it more accessible to the public, trained judges assigned to handle consolidated cases, and created clear principles for all to use as these filings increased. These Multidistrict cases are among the most complex in the Federal Judiciary.
Living Life with a Passion
He had a special affinity for mentoring young lawyers, as well as his sons and their friends, and children of his friends. He was drawn to those who were passionate about their interests – as others were to him – and he helped and inspired others in the law, Judiciary, politics, sports strategy for an upcoming race, career, family, and life choices. Despite living with a difficult cancer treatment regimen for nearly four years, Judge Heyburn continued in all these efforts and a full caseload with courage, gratitude, love, respect, enthusiasm for others, and his trademark sense of humor.
His enthusiasm for life was contagious. He is remembered for his quick recall of diverse topics including history, politics and sports – particularly sports statistics.
He was an avid runner. He was a member of the decorated Harvard track team led by the legendary Coach Bill McCurdy, from whom he drew many life lessons. He earned nine varsity letters in cross-country and track and ran four Boston Marathons. His record for the 1 Mile at Milton Academy still stands.
In addition to his passion for running, he loved the game of golf. He worked his way down to a two handicap and enjoyed memberships in the prestigious U.S. Seniors Golf Association and the Royal Dornoch Golf Club in Scotland. He was a lifelong fan of UK Basketball.