Robert R. Beezer, a federal judge on the nation’s busiest court for the last 28 years and author of landmark decisions on judicial authority, digital media sharing and capital punishment, has died of lung cancer. He was 83.
Beezer’s death Friday at a Seattle hospital was the sixth among U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judges in little more than a year, dealing yet another blow to the overwhelmed bench that hears cases from nine Western states and two Pacific territories.
Four of the 9th Circuit’s 29 authorized active judgeships are vacant due to partisan wrangling in the U.S. Senate over nominees of President Obama, and Beezer’s death now drops to 18 the number of semi-retired senior judges who help shoulder caseloads twice that of the other 12 federal appeals courts.
Like most of the senior judges, Beezer continued to hear cases long after resigning his active judgeship in 1996. As his eyesight failed in recent years, he turned to computerized text-to-audio translation technology to keep up with the voluminous reading required for each case, the court said in its report on his death.
Just two years ago Beezer wrote the opinion in the Anna Nicole Smith bankruptcy case that has been described as one of the most significant rulings on the power and authority of federal judges appointed to lifelong terms. His opinion was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, resolving a long-running dispute over the authority of Congress to delegate judicial power that was provoked when the 9th Circuit took over Smith’s case from a Texas bankruptcy court.
Beezer also wrote what his peers described as a trailblazing decision in 2001 in A&M; Records Inc. vs. Napster Inc., one of the first cases to address whether file sharing was fair use of copyrighted materials, setting the judicial tone for much of the law that has followed on digital media sharing. Beezer wrote that Napster and other file-sharing services could be held liable for contributing to copyright infringement.
While still an active judge in 1994, Beezer wrote for the majority of a divided full court that execution by hanging in his native state of Washington didn’t amount to cruel and unusual punishment as prohibited by the Constitution. As a result, the gallows remain a legal alternative to lethal injection in Washington and New Hampshire.
Beezer also left an indelible mark on the judiciary’s standard for determining sexual harassment, instituting a “reasonable woman” test in place of what he deemed a “male-based” orientation in examining whether a reasonable person would find certain behaviors offensive.
Beezer’s colleagues at the Seattle federal courthouse where he served throughout his tenure described him as tenacious, dedicated and insightful.
“Judge Beezer was the model and epitome of wise judicial statesmanship,” said Judge Ronald M. Gould. “His opinions were formed of plain language, forceful and direct. He stood up to power whether private or governmental, in the name of the Constitution’s requirements.”
Judge Richard C. Tallman, another Seattle-based judge on the appeals court, was in private practice with Beezer 30 years ago and said his friend and mentor had “an intelligent, insightful approach to resolving client problems through creative applications of the law.” Tallman, who like Beezer was seen as aligned with Republican politics before joining the bench, once described Beezer as “the thinking person’s conservative.”
Chief Judge Alex Kozinski praised Beezer as a distinguished jurist who “was devoted to the law and placed great emphasis on courtesy and civility in its practice.”
Born in Seattle on July 21, 1928, Beezer earned his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Virginia. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1951, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps for two years before entering law school. He remained in the Marine Corps Reserve for 20 years before retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He practiced real estate, probate and trust law with the Seattle firm of Schweppe, Doolittle, Krug, Tausend & Beezer until his appointment to the 9th Circuit by President Reagan in 1984.
Prior to his federal court appointment, Beezer served from 1962 to 1979 as a judge pro tem on the Seattle Municipal Court.
The judge is survived by his wife of 54 years, Hazlehurst; sons Robert and John; daughter Allison; and two grandchildren.