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WALKER’S INDEPENDENCE KEEPS LAWYERS GUESSING Court: U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Appointed: Feb. 22, 1989, by President George H.W. Bush Date of Birth: Feb. 27, 1944 Law School: Stanford Law School Previous Judicial Experience: None Vaughn Walker can transform himself into a legal alchemist, unafraid to throw aside convention in favor of experiment, willing to shed tradition in favor of new interpretations. This comes to the delight of some and the horror of others. “I like trying cases in his courtroom,” said criminal defense attorney Patrick Hallinan of Hallinan & Wine. “I think if you were to sum the judge up, he would be a libertarian. He’s conservative, but he has a sense of balance to him, and he’s very independent.” Walker’s manner in the courtroom is understated, even courtly. Although lawyers say Walker gives them latitude in court, it would be a mistake to interpret that as a completely hands-off approach. If Walker wants to push a case in a new direction or ask his own set of questions, he will. “He’s demonstrated a very independent streak in his handling of securities class actions,” said Michael Torpey, head of Clifford Chance’s securities practice in San Francisco. “He’s not afraid to think independently of what the lawyers want.” Walker has cemented part of his reputation in the securities fraud field, where he pioneered the use of auctions to appoint lead counsel status — although, in the wake of a recent Ninth Circuit ruling, he says he has given up the practice. This and other techniques have made him a hero to some who say the plaintiffs bar makes too much money off such cases. It also has led plaintiffs lawyer William Lerach, of Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach, to label Walker an activist judge. But this market-oriented approach to the law can be seen in other areas as well. He is steadfast that the approach to the nation’s drug problem should be economic — decriminalization and regulation. He once described a major heroin bust as a “mercantile crime.” “I hope no one has got the impression that I believe using narcotics is good or helpful. It certainly isn’t for most people’s lives,” Walker said in an interview this week. But, he added, “I’m afraid we haven’t taken a very common-sense approach. It’s not a very simple problem.” Predictably, Walker (along with many other judges) isn’t exactly enamored of the federal sentencing guidelines. “We can’t lose sight of the human factor in the application of the criminal laws,” Walker said. “I think there is something very important about having one individual look another individual in the eye when one individual is about to be deprived of his liberty.” It would be a mistake to confuse Walker’s pro-legalization stance with an affinity for progressive causes. He is not considered to have a light touch when it comes to other types of crimes. And he has angered progressive lawyers with his handling of a civil case over whether police used excessive force when they swabbed the eyes of logging protesters with pepper spray. The protesters have appealed Walker’s decision to move the trial to Eureka — few can remember the last time the Northern District held a trial in Eureka — and say he is biased against them. Walker has already been overruled in the case by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which has shown a willingness to reverse Walker. But the independence remains, and lawyers should prepare themselves for it. “He will follow the issues that are of most interest to him, and they may not be the issues that are of the most interest to the parties,” Torpey said. “The argument may go in an entirely different direction.” At no time was that more evident than Walker’s handling of an antitrust challenge to Hearst Corp.’s acquisition of the San Francisco Chronicle. By the time it was over, the case had sullied the reputations of Hearst, the Justice Department and newspapers in general. An alleged “horse-trading” meeting at which Hearst executives lobbied politicians for approval of the deal was uncovered, and Walker didn’t stand in the way of the plaintiff’s desire to pursue that line of questioning. Even in ultimately approving the sale, Walker famously dubbed the deal “malodorous.” Walker grew up in the Midwest, came to the Bay Area to attend Stanford Law School and spent nearly two decades as a civil litigator at what was then known as Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, focusing on antitrust cases. After first being nominated in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Walker’s confirmation was marked by controversy over his work for the U.S. Olympic Committee to block use of the name “Gay Olympics,” as well as by his membership in the then-exclusionary Olympic Club. He was renominated by President George H.W. Bush and is now in line to succeed Marilyn Hall Patel as chief judge of the district, a switch that would happen next year. Walker said he has only now begun to think about establishing an agenda. Walker balances his anti-establishment rulings with more mainstream approaches. His is often seen as pro-business. He struck down local ordinances barring some ATM fees, for example, and has also ruled that victims of World War II-era forced labor cannot sue Japanese corporations for reparations in a U.S. court. As for advice, Walker tells lawyers to know what their case is about and why it’s important. “[As a judge], you really want to know, when you see a case or see a controversy, what it’s about or why it matters,” he said. “I don’t want to be unduly critical, but it’s surprising still that you see lawyers who come to court who don’t have a clear idea of what their case is all about.” — Jason Hoppin

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