9th Circuit’s Judge John Noonan Dies

Federal appeals Judge John Noonan, known as a Catholic scholar and author of “Contraception,” a history of its treatment by Catholic theologians, died at the age of 90 on April 17, the court has announced.

Noonan served 32 years on the court following his appointment by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, largely on the assumption that he would be a conservative vote on any abortion issue.

Over the years, Noonan became known as a principled and deeply religious judge and advocate of social justice. He wrote over 1,080 legal opinions and dissents and wrote 13 books on law, politics and religion.

It was his 1966 book, “Contraception: A history of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists,” that was thought to influence Pope Paul VI’s decision to look into birth control. He appointed Noonan to serve as advisory on the papal commission.

In addition, he wrote “Bribes,” a historical study of bribery published in 1984.  In 1998, he wrote about the history of religious freedom, tracing it back to the country’s founders in, “The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom.”


But it is his opinions, which have had the most sweeping influence.

In 1987, he wrote the majority in a landmark decision that for the first time said political opinion must be taken into account in asylum cases. A woman who had been raped and beaten by a member of the Salvadoran military after her husband left El Salvador for political reasons sought asylum. Noonan wrote that her political opinion must be evaluated from the perspective of the persecutor, who had imputed a political opinion to her. Lazo-Majano v. INS.

He was particularly sensitive to the plight of immigrants, including those persecuted for political or religious reasons. He once criticized immigration judges, saying their procedures resulted in denial of asylum without potential appeal to high courts.

In 1988, a court majority held, EEOC v. Townley Eng’r & Mfg., that a private company whose founders made a covenant with God that their business “would be a Christian, faith-operated business,” could not require employees to attend prayer services. Noonan dissented. His dissent predates by nearly 30 years the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

In 1995, he wrote in a 2-1 opinion in the first right-to-die case reviewed by an appeals court. He upheld a Washington state law banning physician-assisted suicide in Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington. It was later rendered moot when it was reviewed by the entire appeals court, in an en banc hearing. The decision was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1997, Noonan said a district attorney’s taping of a priest’s encounter with a murder suspect, while the suspect was in county jail, violated the Fourth Amendment and the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, Mockaitis v. Hareleroad.

Noonan reinstated the 1986 civil rights lawsuit of an African-American doctor wo was stopped and detained by a police officer while the doctor was out for an evening walk. The doctor alleged the officer acted with racial prejudice by concluding he was a suspect in a burglary. Hutchinson v. Grant.

In 1999, Noonan dissented from a majority decision that police did not violate Fourth Amendment rights when they used thermal imaging to monitor the interior of a defendant’s home without a warrant. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately reversed, agreeing with Noonan’s conclusion that the use of heat-sensing technology constituted a search. U.S. v. Kyllo.

Noonan was Boston native. He received a law degree fro Harvard Law School in 1954, after he had already received an M.A. and Ph.D. from Catholic University of America in 1951. He served as a professor at Notre Dame Law School and at the U.C. Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law from 1967 until his appointment to the bench in 1985.

“Judge Noonan was a great scholar, a loyal colleague and a good friend,” said Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain.

And Judge Stephen Reinhardt said, “To those of you who didn’t know him well, John Noonan was a wonderful man. He took his religion to heart and turned it to the pursuit of social justice.”

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