The University of Kentucky is creating an initiative to honor the late U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn, who was best known for overturning Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage, with a new archives collection and a series of federal judicial conferences.
The Heyburn Initiative for Excellence in the Federal Judiciary will be centered between the UK College of Law and UK Libraries and will also feature a lecture series. The first speaker, in early 2017, will be U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts.
“The John G. Heyburn Initiative for Judicial Excellence is a perfect tribute to my friend,” said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was involved in the initiative’s creation. “John was kind, he was thoughtful, he was principled — and the Heyburn Initiative will remind us that these virtues count both on the bench and in life. Dedicated to the preservation and study of judicial history in Kentucky, I look forward to the Heyburn Initiative becoming an integral part of Kentucky’s judicial community and a national focal point and destination for all students of our legal system.”
McConnell recommended that President George H.W. Bush appoint Heyburn to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in 1992. He served as chief judge in the Western District from 2001 to 2008. Heyburn died of cancer in 2015.
But Heyburn and McConnell did not always agree; in 2014, Heyburn struck down parts of a 1998 state law and a 2004 state constitutional amendment that limited marriage to “one man and one woman” because he said it violated the equal protections guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendments. Former Attorney General Jack Conway declined to appeal the decision but former Gov. Steve Beshear hired outside attorneys who argued that the ban was needed because opposite-sex couples keep the state’s birth rate stable.
“These arguments are not those of serious people,” Heyburn wrote.
Heyburn, who also ruled that consideration of race could be used in making school assignments in Jefferson County Public Schools, noted in the same-sex marriage decision that states often argued that segregation created a more stable society.
“Similarly, many states deprived women of their equal rights under the law, believing this to properly preserve our traditions,” he wrote. “In time, even the most strident supporters of these views understood that they could not enforce their particular moral views to the detriment of another’s constitutional rights. Here as well, sometime in the not-too-distant future, the same understanding will come to pass.”
Heyburn’s decision was folded into several that were overturned by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, but those eventually emerged as Obergefell vs. Hodges, the 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that legalized same-sex marriage. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the dissent.
Heyburn’s widow, Martha Heyburn, found that Heyburn had kept voluminous files on all his decisions, which sparked the idea of the initiative and will form the core of a new archives collection.
“John was determined to make better the legal system he considered ‘the envy of the world,’” Martha Heyburn said. “This initiative will mark his legacy by educating citizens about the American government and democracy itself through the prism of the third branch and by sparking a robust dialogue about our legal system.”
The initiative also will work with the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and the Federal Judicial Center to host conferences and training sessions for the federal judiciary. UK Libraries will start collecting the archives and oral histories of other federal judges, all of which will be available online.
An independent advisory board will be created to support the Heyburn Initiative. Funding to support the Heyburn Initiative will be raised and managed by the Community Foundation of Louisville.