Colleagues: Judge in gay court case not 'activist'

AP News
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Posted: Oct 14, 2010 5:13 AM
Colleagues: Judge in gay court case not 'activist'

The federal judge who halted the military's ban on openly gay troops is known for working at court well past closing time, typing her own court orders and doting on two terriers who themselves are no strangers to the halls of justice.

U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips won praise from gays and was derided by critics as an activist judge when she issued an injunction Tuesday ending the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy, saying it violates due process rights, freedom of speech and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The fallout on the polarizing topic has surprised Phillips' friends and colleagues, who said the 53-year-old registered Democrat is much better known in her inner circle for her empathy, her love of Jane Austen novels and her annual walking tours of Europe.

Phillips is popular with her court staff and works harder than anyone to get a case right, said Stephen Larson, a former federal judge in Riverside.

In her tenure as a federal judge, Phillips has handled a wide array of cases, from criminal bank robberies and drug trafficking to civil cases involving the freedoms of religion and speech, police brutality, environmental protections and labor law.

"I think the world of Ginny. She's a wonderful person on a personal level. She's a great judge. She's one of the hardest working people that I know," Larson said. "I like to think that I put in a lot of hours and work hard, but no matter how early I got in or how late I stayed, her car was still there when I left."

Phillips, whose husband died in 2001, is also dedicated to her two wire-haired terriers, Mick and Taffy, Larson said.

"The dogs have been known to visit the courthouse from time to time, after hours of course," he said.

Phillips said Wednesday through a court officer that she was not available for comment.

Supporters of "don't ask, don't tell" accused Phillips of seeking to advance her own political beliefs through her ruling. They also said she overstepped the limits of her judicial authority, ruling on something that should be decided by the legislative branch.

"The lives of the men and women in our military are at stake. The military is not a toy to be handed out, the spoils of a political fight, to be handed over to those who are politically powerful," said Wendy Wright, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Concerned Women for America.

The Justice Department is considering whether to appeal and might ask for a temporary freeze on her ruling.

Those who have argued cases before Phillips said the accusations of Wright and others don't ring true.

Phillips, born in Orange on Valentine's Day in 1957, is the fourth of eight children and got her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley before starting in private practice in 1982.

She was hired as an associate at Best Best & Krieger LLP in Riverside, where she cut her teeth researching and writing briefs for her mentor, attorney Arthur Littleworth.

Littleworth said he never had to change a word of the work she did for him _ quite a feat, because Littleworth was famous for whipping out his red pen.

"She was extremely thorough, a very hard worker and an outstanding writer," he said.

Phillips eventually made partner at the firm before becoming a Riverside County Superior Court commissioner in 1991 and a federal magistrate in 1995.

In 1999, President Clinton appointed her as a federal judge in U.S. District Court in Riverside.

In the 11 years since, Phillips has presided over a wide array of cases, but her rulings have largely escaped public scrutiny until now.

"This is her big case," Larson said.

Phillips oversaw a 2002 civil case brought by a born-again Christian nurse who sued after being fired from a county health clinic for refusing to give patients the "morning after" pill on religious grounds.

In that case, the jury found the nurse's rights to freedom of speech and religion were violated and awarded her $47,000 in damages for lost wages and emotional distress.

The case required legal rulings on constitutional matters and Phillips' thoughtful approach was impressive, said Bruce Disenhouse, who represented the losing health clinic in the case.

"The one thing you'll find with Judge Phillips is, regardless of what kind of profile the case has, she'll give it an equal amount of attention," he said. "From a layperson's perspective, she's extremely efficient."

In 2009, Phillips overturned the conviction of Bruce Lisker, a man who had served 26 years for his mother's murder in a notorious Los Angeles case. She cited findings of tainted evidence and sloppy defense work.

Just last week, Phillips rejected an attempt by the state attorney general to send Lisker back to jail, saying it had missed the window in which to appeal her ruling to release him.

By the time Phillips inherited the "don't ask, don't tell" case in 2008, it had languished for four years with the previous judge, but Phillips proceeded quickly and defended her right to hear the case when government lawyers argued she did not have jurisdiction. During the trial she allowed witnesses to continue past the normal court closing, and then she personally typed a court order.

"We were happy because we had some prior experience with her and knew her to be a judge to listen to both sides of the case and give both sides a fair shake," said Dan Woods, attorney for the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay rights group that sued to stop the ban's enforcement. "We knew we had an uphill battle in this case."

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Associated Press Writer Julie Watson reported from San Diego.