The most outspoken and combative judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was eager for yet another battle.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt of Los Angeles, one of the court's most liberal jurists, was tangling this time with conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist, who had just insulted 9th Circuit liberals at a judicial conference in Seattle.
Commenting on the Supreme Court's 99% reversal rate on 9th Circuit cases in 1984, Rehnquist had upset Reinhardt by remarking:
"Some panels of the 9th Circuit have a hard time saying no to any litigant with a hard-luck story."
Chasing a reporter down a Seattle street, Reinhardt immediately launched his counterattack.
"It is not that we can't say no," he said. "Many of us feel an obligation to uphold the rights of citizens against the government. That's what we think the Constitution is there for.
"Some members of the Supreme Court these days think they are there to protect the government against the citizens."
Since that exchange two years ago, the 9th Circuit's liberal image has faded and the court's growing number of conservative new judges has helped cut the reversal rate to 62%.
Reinhardt, 55, now finds himself one of a dwindling band of liberals on the 28-judge court--no longer so frequently in control of the three-judge panels that decide most cases.
But the continuing shift in the court's composition from Democrat to Republican has not quieted Reinhardt nor diminished his readiness for combat with the conservative forces around him.
A major figure in Los Angeles Democratic politics for almost two decades before his judicial appointment in 1980, Reinhardt has carried his flair for controversy to the federal bench.
The most colorful of the 9th Circuit judges in his written opinions and also the most vocal in denouncing conservative views, Reinhardt has emerged as the court's most controversial figure.
'A Man of Conscience'
"I think he has a lot of courage, a lot of humanism and a lot of compassion," said 9th Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson of Los Angeles, another of the court's most liberal Democratic judges. "He is a man of conscience and a great judge."
Said a conservative Republican district court judge: "I'm told by his brethren that he can't disagree without being disagreeable. He's a guy championing causes. I'm not sure that's what a judge should be doing."
Reinhardt, one of the court's hardest-working judges despite heart problems and a triple bypass operation three years ago, draws mixed reviews from others--including Santa Clara Law School Dean Gerald F. Uelmen, a leading liberal expert on the 9th Circuit.
"I think he's more likely to be outspoken. He doesn't pull his punches," Uelmen said. "But he may have a tendency to be a little preachy at times."
Among federal prosecutors and trial judges, Reinhardt is thought of as one of the 9th Circuit judges most likely to reverse a criminal conviction, and the statistics support that view.
Rate of Reversals
His reversal rate in more than 1,000 criminal cases he has decided in almost six years on the appellate court is 29.8%--compared to 15.7% for the 9th Circuit as a whole.
"I hate his guts," said one assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles. "He's one of the liberal judges who is looking to reverse every criminal case that comes along. In my mind he's the Rose Bird of the 9th Circuit."
In an interview last week in his chambers at the U.S. Courthouse in Los Angeles, Reinhardt repeated his criticisms of the Supreme Court and of the nation's conservative trend.
"This seems to be a period where people are more interested in themselves than in society," he said. "The message they get from their leaders is you don't have an obligation to help people.
"The Supreme Court is less interested in expanding the protections of the Constitution and more interested in reducing the role of the federal courts," he added.
Reinhardt said it "can be a frustrating experience" to be a liberal judge in a conservative time.
But he added that he believes it is "valuable" to have strong liberal voices in dissent, and he predicted that the national mood will eventually shift back toward his own philosophies.
"It's going to change. I just don't know when," he added. "I can't believe we're going to stop caring. I'm sometimes pessimistic on a day-to-day basis, but I'm not pessimistic about the future of man or the essential good of the country."
Reinhardt, disputing suggestions that he is more aggressive or politically oriented than other 9th Circuit liberals, said he does not view himself as controversial and portrayed himself as "an average judge" trying to keep up with his caseload.
But neither his critics nor his admirers suggest that they think there is anything average about the judge or ever has been.
Before he was a judge, Reinhardt was first a top Los Angeles labor lawyer, then one of the leading strategists of the Democratic Party in California, finally a top aide to Mayor Tom Bradley.
'Brilliant' and 'Devious'