Judge at center of Ohio gay marriage ruling infuriates some, hailed by others

CINCINNATI — A federal judge who recently ordered the marriages of two gay couples to be recognized in Ohio despite a statewide constitutional ban has infuriated some conservatives who paint him as a liberal activist judge who should be impeached, while his supporters say he’s a fair and thoughtful adjudicator.

Judge Timothy Seymour Black ruled in favor of the two couples, each struggling with death as they sue state authorities to get their out-of-state marriages recognized on Ohio death certificates.

Judge Timothy S. Black
Judge Timothy S. Black

Black found that the couples deserve to be treated with respect and that Ohio law historically has recognized out-of-state marriages as valid as long as they were legal where they took place, such as marriages between cousins and involving minors.

“How then can Ohio, especially given the historical status of Ohio law, single out same-sex marriages as ones it will not recognize?” Black wrote in August. “The short answer is that Ohio cannot.”

The ruling has gotten attention nationwide, helping spark a similar but much broader lawsuit in Pennsylvania and leading at least one Idaho lawmaker to publicly wonder whether his state is violating the Constitution by failing to recognize the out-of-state marriages of gay couples. Meanwhile, Oregon officials have declared that the state will recognize same-sex marriages of couples who wed in other states or countries.

Black’s decision also has drawn the ire of conservative groups and lawmakers in Ohio, most notably from state Republican Rep. John Becker, who is calling for Congress to impeach him.

“The grounds are malfeasance and abuse of power,” Becker wrote in a letter last month to U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup in which he asked the congressman to begin impeachment proceedings. “Judge Black has demonstrated his incompetence by allowing his personal political bias to supersede jurisprudence.”

Black, 60, has not spoken publicly about the controversy and has declined requests for comment by The Associated Press.

Black’s friends and colleagues defend him as a highly intelligent, thoughtful judge who closely examines every case before delivering rulings free of personal bias.

“With respect to his decision, I believe he’s probably looked at it thoroughly and dispassionately,” said Jean Geoppinger McCoy, president of the Cincinnati Bar Association, who has looked at Black as a mentor since their days at the same Cincinnati law firm in the early 90s. “He’s not one who, in my experience, will take up causes without a fundamental basis for his opinion.”

Black, a native of the Boston suburb of Brookline, graduated with honors from Harvard in 1975 with a degree in English and American literature before getting a law degree from Northern Kentucky University, where he went to night classes for five years as he worked during the day as a teacher.

Black, who also was on the rowing team at Harvard and still enjoys sail ing on Ohio’s picturesque Cowan Lake, worked at the prominent Cincinnati law firm of Graydon Head & Ritchey for 11 years before he became a municipal court judge in 1994, sitting on cases ranging from traffic offenses to domestic violence.

Black ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Ohio Supreme Court in 2000 and 2002 before becoming a federal magistrate judge in 2004.

In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed him to his current position, praising Black’s “evenhandedness, intellect, and spirit of service” and expressing confidence that he would “dispense justice with unwavering integrity and impartiality.”

At his confirmation hearing, Black said the best decision he ever made as a judge and human being was marrying his wife of 36 years, Marnie Chapman Black, a self-employed tutor, and that the most important work he’s done is raising his two daughters, Abby and Emily, who are in college.

On being a judge, Black said that “impartiality and integ rity are the twin bulwarks.”

“(But) the important personal quality a judge needs is patience – the ability to suspend judgment until you’ve heard all of the evidence and all of the facts from all of the parties,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We are umpires. We call balls and strikes. There is a defined strike zone and that is our job as an impartial arbiter, is to make a decision on this case and on these facts and the law that applies to it.”

Kelly Johnson, a Cincinnati attorney who has appeared in Black’s courtrooms dozens of times at the local and federal levels over some 15 years, said he hasn’t always been on the winning side of the judge’s rulings but that each one has been articulate and well-reasoned.

“Judge Black is not a person that shoots from the hip,” Johnson said. “He works very hard and he is thoughtful in his decisions.”

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who nominated Black for his judgeship, expressed outrage over calls for Black’s impeachment.

“You don’t impeach a judge for a decision you didn’t like. You appeal the decision,” Brown said. “The politics have gotten so toxic in Ohio … I don’t understand why anybody would be so angry they’d want to impeach a judge because he believes people who love one another … should get some legal protections. I don’t understand that way of thinking. That’s hatred.”

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