Boyce F. Martin Jr.: A virtuous federal judge

With the death last week of Boyce F. Martin Jr., the longtime judge, Louisville and our nation has lost one of its leading citizens, one of its kindest hearts, and one of its most consistently progressive judicial voices. His passing, the same week as Muhammad Ali's, is a sad reminder that key figures of the civil rights era who have shaped our community at almost every level are exiting the stage of life.

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Judge Martin, whose rapid rise from attorney and prosecutor to local judge, then chief judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and then in 1980, as U.S. Appeals Court judge, was a man of good sense, great humor and patience. But as his former clerk, David Schrodt, wrote last week, "Mostly what enters my mind when I think of Judge Martin are ideas. Great ideas. I think of mercy and freedom. I think of judiciousness, of judicial proceedings, and court decisions. I think of law and equity. Mostly, I think of virtue."

These are strong attributes, especially in this topsy-turvy election year of 2016. For above all other things, Boyce Martin was a man of virtue, whose approach to the law, which he had studied at the University of Virginia, always championed the less fortunate and the unempowered. In his Courier-Journal obituary, Kentucky's leading constitutional lawyer, Sheryl Snyder, said, "He is quite revered, and deservedly so."

According to David Hawpe, the retired vice president and editor of The Courier-Journal, Martin's "leadership on the landmark Grutter v. Bollinger case was "a singular contribution to justice, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, holding that the University of Michigan law school could take into account an applicant's race when making admissions decisions." Equally notable was Martin's opinion in which he upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the first major jurist in America to do so. How proud we in Louisville should be that judges from our city made rulings in cases involving the most important issues of the time, which also included the late Judge John G. Heyburn II's rulings on school desegregation and upholding the constitutionality of gay marriage.

Hawpe, who frequently spoke with Martin and wrote about him in his twice-weekly columns noted, "This was the case that conservatives desperately wanted to win, to strike a decisive blow against affirmative action. Happily, complaints from Judge Danny Boggs on the handling of the case by the Sixth Circuit appellate court came to naught." Boggs was the right-wing yang to Martin's liberal ying on the appeals court. But the two were never in perfect balance. Boggs' snide comments sometimes crossed the line, like the time he accused Martin and other liberals' efforts to delay executions and issue stays had the validity of "a hot dog label."

To be sure, Martin was an opponent of the death penalty, insofar as the Supreme Court was willing to prevent it. He was also defender of the high court's role in society. That was never more vividly expressed than his defense of the 2000 Bush v. Gore case. "Murky, transparent, illegitimate, right, wrong, whatever Bush v. Gore may be ... it is first and foremost a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, and we are bound to adhere to it."

In person, Boyce Martin was the personification of the qualities he exemplified on the bench. His merry smile, round face and twinkling eyes - Old King Cole come to life -- promised lively conversation, and plenty of humor. Yet he never joked about the law: It was to him as serious as the devotion he had to his country and his family. Two marriages to creative and independent women blessed him. His first wife, Mavin (Mimi) Brown was a civic leader in her own right, whose work in the early days of Actors Theatre of Louisville helped place it on the national show business map. After her death in 1997, he married museum executive Anne Ogden, whose work at the Speed Art Museum had help moved it toward its current position of strength. Each of the judge's four children, their spouses and children are accomplished.

One of the things that few people remember is that early in his career, Judge Martin was part of a very unusual law firm that included, among others, now-Sen. Mitch McConnell. Another of the partners, attorney and civic leader John S. Greenebaum, offered this assessment: "Both of them had amazing intellectual power and impressively tuned and effective political instincts. There may have been a fork in the road somewhere. (As Yogi Berra stated once, 'if you come to a fork in the road, take it.') Boyce may have been guided by a higher sense of human spirituality, even though he never lost pragmatism. All this is well reflected in his legal writings and the emotionally affirmative conclusions to which they inevitably pointed." How true.

Judge Martin's funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville. His burial in Cave Hill Cemetery, the same cemetery where Muhammad Ali will be buried on Friday, June 10, will be private.