SAN FRANCISCO -- On a May day in 2009, Vaughn Walker was going through one of his weekly routines as a federal judge, reviewing a stack of new lawsuits assigned to his San Francisco chambers, when one case caught his eye: Perry v. Schwarzenegger.
At the time, Walker had no inkling that history might rest in those pages, that one of the most important legal collisions in the nation over same-sex marriage might hang in the balance. In fact, at first, all Walker noticed was then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's name.
But it did not take long for the veteran chief judge, himself quietly but openly in a longtime gay relationship with a doctor, to realize that he had inherited the legal challenge to Proposition 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage. The silver-haired judge with the iconoclast's reputation would be center stage in the gay marriage controversy.
"That's when I had the --'Oh (my)' moment," Walker told the San Jose Mercury News during an interview last week, recalling that he was already mulling retirement when the lawsuit landed on his desk.
The case temporarily took retirement off the table for Walker. And now the Proposition 8 showdown has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on March 26 and, to some extent, review Walker's handiwork before ruling by June. Walker, after conducting an unprecedented trial, in 2010 declared the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional, saying the law had no social justification and singled out same-sex couples for discrimination.
A federal appeals court agreed with Walker, although it took a much narrower approach in invalidating Proposition 8. Still, Walker's role has shaped the nearly four-year legal battle over same-sex marriage rights in California.
Walker, soon to turn 69, retired from the federal bench after finishing the case, and he now practices law from a spartan corner office he leases from a law firm in the Embarcadero, while also doing some teaching at the Stanford and UC Berkeley law schools.
He doesn't miss the judge job much, nor the federal courthouse's Tenderloin neighborhood. He enjoys a spectacular view of the bay and can walk to nearby restaurant favorites such as La Mar, where he lunched last week on Peruvian fare as he discussed the complexities of the Proposition 8 case. (An avid traveler, Walker has journeyed to Peru several times.)
Walker wasn't always so sure the Proposition 8 case would reach the Supreme Court, although he prepared from the outset for that possibility. He notes that the gay marriage debate was at a different juncture in 2009 -- few states had legalized same-sex marriage (nine do now), and President Barack Obama was still several years away from backing same-sex marriage rights in the courts.
"It was a different time, and the Supreme Court doesn't always get out in front of public opinion," Walker said. "Not that many cases go to the Supreme Court."