Federal judge who set Kentucky's ban on same-sex marriage on path to Supreme Court dies

04/30/2015 05:30 AM

U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II, whose rulings striking down bans on same-sex marriage paved the way for what could be a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on the divisive issue, died at age 66 on Wednesday.

Heyburn’s passing comes a day after the high court heard arguments in cases challenging laws against same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan and Ohio. He had battled liver cancer for several years.

Heyburn, who battled cancer, was nominated to the federal bench in the western Kentucky district by President George H. W. Bush in 1992 based on the recommendation of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“Known for his searing intellect, fiercely competitive spirit, and quick wit, John Heyburn untangled countless legal knots and delivered sweeping legal opinions on cases of incredible complexity over his more than two decades on the federal bench,” McConnell said. “And yet the thing you were most likely to remember about his chambers were all the photos of his wife Martha and their beloved sons Will and Jack.”

Gov. Steve Beshear, whose administration appealed Heyburn’s ruling, called the federal judge’s death “a tremendous loss for the state and for the courts.” Beshear won in the U.S. Court of Appeals, ultimately sending the lawsuit to the Supreme Court.

“Equal parts thoughtful and thought-provoking, Judge Heyburn possessed the unique character that makes for a good judge – a devotion to detail, an appreciation for the weight of words, a curious mind, and a gracious manner for all who entered his courtroom,” Beshear said in a statement.

Attorney General Jack Conway said he was saddened to hear of Heyburn’s death.

“Judge Heyburn was an incredible person, a student of the law and a judge who always made certain that the rights and interests of everyone were protected in his courtroom,” Conway said in a statement.

Heyburn is survived by his wife, Martha, and two sons.

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