“May a federal court count the vote of a judge who dies before the decision is issued?” The cynical New Jersey resident in me thinks the answer to this question is simple – people vote all the time in New Jersey after they die. But this was not what the Supreme Court was after in Yovino v. Rizo.
Yovino was before an en banc panel of 11 judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. One judge participated in oral argument, voted, and wrote a decision on the case, but died before the decision was released. The Ninth Circuit nonetheless counted his vote, which was significant, because it was the deciding vote. By counting his vote, the judge’s decision became the majority opinion and thus binding precedent in the Ninth Circuit. If his vote had not been counted, then the case would have ended in a 5-5 tie with no majority opinion, and thus no binding precedent.
The Ninth Circuit claimed that it was justified in counting the judge’s vote because “the majority opinion and all concurrences were final, and voting was completed by the en banc panel prior to his death.” The Supreme Court disagreed. It held that, by statute, only active or senior-status judges can participate on en banc panels. It further held that judges’ votes and opinions do not become “immutable at some point in time prior to their public release,” but instead, “a judge may change his or her position up to the very moment when a decision is released.” Thus, a decision is not final until the date of its release. And if a judge dies or retires before that date, then he or she is no longer an active judge or a senior judge when the decision is made, therefore his or her vote does not count.
Applying this standard to Yovino, the Supreme Court held:
Because Judge Reinhardt was no longer a judge at the time when the en banc decision in this case was filed, the Ninth Circuit erred in counting him as a member of the majority. That practice effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death. But federal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.
(Although the lede is sufficiently buried at this point, that last sentence is the main reason why I wrote this post.)