By Katherine A. Grosh
This is exactly the question answered by the United States Supreme Court in Jim Yovino, Fresno County Superintendent of Schools v. Aileen Rizo, 586 U.S. ___ (2019) (Feb. 25, 2019).
This case involved the en banc review of an April 9, 2018 decision by a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in an interlocutory appeal involving the Equal Pay Act, in which the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court based on a prior Ninth Circuit decision involving the Equal Pay Act, Kouba v. Allstate Ins. Co., 691 F.2d 873 (1982) (“Kouba”), which the panel “believed it was compelled to follow.” 586 U.S. at ___, citing 887 F. 3d 453, 459 (2018) (en banc). The Ninth Circuit then granted en banc review “to clarify the law, including the vitality and effect of Kouba.” Id.
Because a panel decision like Kouba can be overruled only by a decision of the en banc court or the United States Supreme Court, a purpose of the April 9, 2018 en banc decision was to announce new and binding Ninth Circuit precedent interpreting the Equal Pay Act. Judge Reinhardt, who died 11 days after the decision was issued, was the author of the Ninth Circuit opinion – but its status as a “majority opinion” of the en banc court depended on counting Judge Reinhardt’s vote; without his vote, the opinion would have been approved by only 5 of the 10 members of the panel who were still living when the decision was filed.
The Supreme Court ruled that Judge Reinhardt was no longer a judge at the time the en banc decision in this case was filed, and therefore, the Ninth Circuit erred in counting him as a member of “the majority.” Counting his vote, the Court reasoned, effectively allowed a deceased judge to exercise the judicial power of the United States after his death. “[F]ederal judges are appointed for life, not for eternity.” Even though Judge Reinhardt fully participated in this case and authored the opinion, which (along with all concurrences) was final with voting completed by the en banc court prior to his death, the Supreme Court found that the opinion was not endorsed by a majority of the living judges at the time the opinion was “filed,” entered on the docket, and released to the public.
In support of its decision, the Supreme Court relied on the rule it endorsed in United States v. American-Foreign S. S. Corp., 363 U. S. 685 (1960), that “a judge may change his or her position up to the very moment when a decision is released,” along with 28 U. S. C. §46(c), the statutory provision authorizing the courts of appeals to hear cases en banc. In the Court’s view, Judge Reinhardt was without statutory or judicial power to participate in the en banc court’s decision at the time it was rendered. Accordingly, the Court granted the petition for certiorari, and vacated the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remanded the case.