U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez’s faith to his” obligation to follow the law wherever it leads” in three 2nd Amendment cases garners press ire.
On Sunday, August 8, 2021, I went to the range to take in some target practice. Breaking for lunch, I checked my phone to find a notice that the LA Times had just published “The judge upending California’s gun laws: ‘Blessed’ jurist or ‘stone-cold ideologue’?”, an article questioning the motives and qualifications of U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez.
The article has sixty-four paragraphs. Eight of them are neutral and descriptive. Seventeen of them say something positive about Judge Benitez; half that if you happen to be triggered by positive descriptions of the 2nd Amendment. At the very end of the article, reporters Laura Nelson and Kristina Davis, do give a historical description of Benitez’s own experiences witnessing the terror of government-sponsored gun control in Cuba. The remainder of the positive paragraphs are quotes from his fellow judges that universally like the man. One paragraph notes that his appointment to the bench was supported by California Senator Dianne Feinstein. He was confirmed by a bipartisan 98-1 vote.
Thirty-nine paragraphs are split between descriptions of loathing by what looks to be a crushing of sour grapes complaints, by defense attorneys who have encountered Judge Benitez’s courtroom hopscotching with tales of horror, and alarm by what the reporters refer to a “gun safety advocates”.
The defense attorneys don’t like that he holds their feet to the fire. The lobbyists express meltdown distress that Benitez is introducing legal theory that will undermine their narratives.
But sifting through the judge’s comments, the things that come out about Benitez suggest “Blessed jurist” may be the answer to the LA Time’s clickbait headline. Let’s unpack some of these comments.
Responding to the defense lawyers and the ABA’s opinion of Benitez as prickly, U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns blamed many of the ABA findings on misunderstandings, saying Benitez has “lots of social graces” and is “quite the gadfly. People are attracted to him.”
Forty-four paragraphs later in the article, that admiration continues with, “I regard him as the epitome of the American dream,” Burns, his fellow judge, said in an interview. “Someone who comes from very difficult circumstances and rises to one of the very few federal judges in the United States.”
Among lawyers, the opinions vary. A prosecutor in one case in the article described Benitez as a “paragon of civility.” The defense attorney in the same case conversely viewed the judge’s actions were a “calculated attempt to humiliate and degrade”. This was at a sentencing hearing for a case that had already been convicted, appealed several times, and was again up for resentencing. Heated animus? Sounds like it. But we should all remember that an attorney’s job is to advocate for their client tenaciously. A judge’s job is to see beyond the theater of the courtroom.
The reporter’s style of critical statistics also seems a little slanted. Take the following,
“Over a 10-year stretch in the middle of Benitez’s career, 14% of his decisions were reversed or vacated at the 9th Circuit, according to a Westlaw analysis.
That is in the upper range as compared with five other Bush-nominated judges in the Southern District, who had negative outcomes of 9% to 15%. A rate above 20% would be considered troubling to legal experts, said Shaun Martin, a professor at University of San Diego School of Law.”
Unpacking this, the barrier fence is that a rate above 20% is worrisome, Benitez’s track record is well below that. Doing the math, Benitez’s 14% is right smack average in the big picture. Technically, a nothing burger. I didn’t see a direct question to UCSD Professor Martin asking if he was troubled; just innuendo by association that seemed, to me anyway, unfounded.
There is no doubt that Judge Benitez has found himself navigating some very rough water in the American nation’s journey with the Bill of Rights; specifically, the Second Amendment.
This journey is cast oddly by the reporters, “It was a purely random decision that led to Benitez ending up with so many crucial gun cases.”
They then detail,
In 2017, he was assigned the large-capacity magazine lawsuit. Then came three more 2nd Amendment cases in the next two years … in three consecutive years, the 70-year-old judge made a trio of rulings that have upended California’s gun laws and launched him into the intensifying national debate over guns.
In 2019, he blocked a ban on magazines that hold more than 10 bullets. The next year, he knocked down a voter-approved law that required background checks for ammunition purchases. And this summer, he overturned California’s long-standing ban on assault weapons.
To many gun control advocates and victims of gun violence, the last decision in particular provoked anger and incredulity.
Quotes by gun control advocates in the article include,
“His opinions suggest a very inflated view of the right to guns and a very deflated view of the right of Americans to live,” said Jonathan Lowy, the chief counsel of Brady, the nonprofit against gun violence.
After the assault weapon ruling, Gov. Gavin Newsom excoriated Benitez as a “stone-cold ideologue” and a “wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Assn.”
“That was a new and deeply disturbing line of thinking,” said Ari Freilich, the California policy director for the Giffords Law Center. Benitez, he said, seemed to suggest that the 2nd Amendment protects the right of “average people in a civilian militia to make war against their government.”
But another fellow judge sums things up differently.
“U.S. District Court Chief Judge Dana Sabraw described his colleague as “a man of unquestioned integrity. We may not agree on rulings, whatever the case is, but they’re not based on a political agenda or ideology. He’s really faithful with his obligation to follow the law wherever it leads.”