John G. Heyburn II became a national figure last year when he ruled that Kentucky's ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. He was hailed for the independence, clarity and humanity of his ruling.
A Republican; scion of a wealthy, established Louisville family; close friend of the young Mitch McConnell as he ascended in politics; appointed to the federal bench by President George H. W. Bush — people who didn't know Judge Heyburn might have been surprised by his ruling.
But it couldn't have been a surprise for those who knew him. He struck an independent, practical and fair course during more than two decades on the bench, before his death at 66 on Wednesday.
"He was universally respected for making every decision in every case based on the merits of that case," an attorney who practiced before Judge Heyburn told the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Judge Heyburn was not a stranger to controversial cases. He eliminated a racial quota system in the Jefferson County Public Schools in 2000 and, in 2004, upheld the district's policy of not allowing any school to become more than 85 percent white or 50 percent black, a decision later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Heyburn didn't focus on the controversy but on the courts' role in maintaining a civil society.
"Federal courts are an institution that unify everyone and keep the country on even keel," he told Law360, a trade publication, after his ruling on gay marriage.
He said he took particular care in the gay marriage decision, "explaining how the Constitution works and the judge's role, and how even if they might not like the decision, they should respect it."
Judge Heyburn was the rare person who can inspire respect from both sides while navigating explosive social issues.
He will be missed.