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Appellate Judge John Noonan Remembered

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 26, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Like other accomplished jurists who have passed on, Judge John T. Noonan, Jr. left a legacy of decisions that will live on in American jurisprudence.

Some may recall his opinion in a landmark decision to uphold physician-assisted suicide, ultimately adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Others may remember his decision to stay the execution of Robert Alton Harris, who later became the first man to be executed in California in 25 years.

A few may remember the 13 books he wrote on law, history, and religious freedom during his 31 years on the bench. But those who knew him best at the court -- especially his law clerks -- will never forget that he dutifully wrote every opinion himself on yellow legal pads.

"A Renaissance Man"

Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, Noonan served as an active judge for 11 years and assumed senior status in 1996 and published his last opinion in December. He died at age 90 -- a judge from another time.

"Indeed, he was a Renaissance man who contributed to his country, his church, the legal academy and the rule of law," said Senior Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain.

Noonan came to the bench from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a professor of law. He had also worked as an attorney and as a staffer on the National Security Council under President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

A Boston native, he earned undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard. He received a masters degree and a Ph.D. from Catholic University.

Pursuing Social Justice

Noonan was a renowned scholar, having authored a book on contraception that Pope Paul VI considered in appointing a commission to study the issue. Noonan served as a consultant to the commission, which recommended relaxing the church's ban on birth control.

"To those of you who didn't know him well, John Noonan was a wonderful man," Judge Stephen Reinhardt said. "He took his religion to heart and turned it to the pursuit of social justice."

In addition to books and scholarly articles, Noonan wrote 1,080 opinions, dissents, and memoranda for the appeals court. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor who worked with Noonan at the Ninth Circuit, said the judge always "looked at the person and tried to consider their situation" in his decisions. "That was his Catholic faith, that we're all made in the image of God," she said.

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