U.S. District Judge Richard L. Young issued a ruling in a lawsuit striking down Indiana’s ban on gay marriage on Wednesday, talks about his career in his office on Friday, June 27, 2014. Although Young is unable to comment on the ruling other than what is written in his ruling, he stated in the ruling that the “court finds that Indiana’s same sex marriage ban violates the due process clause and equal protection clause and is, therefore, unconstitutional.” Staff photo by Erin McCracken
U.S. District Judge Richard L. Young issued a ruling in a lawsuit striking down Indiana’s ban on gay marriage on Wednesday, talks about his career in his office on Friday, June 27, 2014. Although Young is unable to comment on the ruling other than what is written in his ruling, he stated in the ruling that the “court finds that Indiana’s same sex marriage ban violates the due process clause and equal protection clause and is, therefore, unconstitutional.” Staff photo by Erin McCracken
U.S. District Judge Richard L. Young is well aware of the furor created by his decision Wednesday to strike down Indiana’s ban on same-sex marriage.

But it’s not in his job description to care. And although Young didn’t say as much during an hourlong interview in his office Friday, he doesn’t have to.

Protected by security guards and the U.S. Constitution, federal judges need only concern themselves with the cases before them and the attendant briefs, motions and pleadings. They are essentially untouchable — immune to political pressure, indifferent to opinion polls and unbeholden even to the politicians who appoint them.

Young said that’s for the common good.

“You can’t let public opinion affect your decision. You determine the facts, and you apply the facts to the law,” he said. “Our forefathers, in determining that federal judges have lifetime tenure and should be isolated from politics, turns out to be a very wise decision.”

Several hours after Young spoke to the Courier & Press on Friday, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency stay of his controversial ruling, which had found the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional.

Young isn’t totally insulated from the public, allowing that his office received “a significant number of calls” after Wednesday’s ruling.

Staff members handled the calls.

“I haven’t talked to anybody, but they call in and, you know, we’re here to serve the public and we can’t ignore those calls. we have to answer them, talk to them, and listen,” the judge said.

Judicial activism?

Young has known for several months, since he agreed to hear a similar challenge to Indiana’s same-sex marriage ban in New Albany, that this day could come.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act last year. Since then, 16 federal judges have issued rulings siding with gay-marriage advocates, though many of those are being appealed.

“Once I got the case, I knew it was a significant issue being discussed all around the country, in courts all around the country,” Young said. “It’s my job. I have to make a decision.”

Lawyers raised the issue of the same-sex marriage ban’s constitutionality, Young said. He had to address it.

A veteran now of 24 years on the state and federal benches, Young is no stranger to high-profile cases. As a young lawyer working on his first jury trial in 1982, he was part of the defense team for accused murderer Daryl D. McReynolds, a fired Crescent Plastics employee who used a sawed-off shotgun to kill two people and injure three others at his former workplace in 1981.

McReynolds was convicted and sentenced to 270 years in prison after a jurors failed to reach consensus on a death penalty recommendation.

Tom Bozikis, an Evansville resident and self-described social conservative, believes Young’s ruling against the same-sex marriage ban was judicial activism. Bozikis believes the Constitution’s equal protection clause was never intended to protect same-gender relationships.

“I’m not saying that they should not have them if they want to,” he said. “But to call it marriage is forcing that on the rest of us who don’t necessarily agree or approve.”

Young has a ready answer for those who believe his ruling was judicial activism at its worst.

“They call it judicial activism if they don’t agree with the decision,” he said. “If they agree with the decision, then it’s certainly not judicial activism. That means the judge is following the law and doing the right thing.”

Rapid rise

The 61-year-old Young’s path to a federal judgeship was aided at several key junctures by powerful men who saw enough in him to invest in his career.

And that career began not with the presumption of stony impartiality and strict adherence to law presumed of a judge, but inside the sometimes cutthroat world of internal Democratic Party politics.

It was in Young’s home state of Iowa in 1976, in the run-up to that state’s influential presidential caucuses, that the young man whom friends knew as “Rick” made perhaps the most important friendship of his life.

Having been involved in student politics at Drake University in Des Moines, the 23-year-old Young threw himself into Indiana Senator Birch Bayh’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Bayh was hard-pressed to compete organizationally with the then-little-known but politically potent former Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, and his tiny campaign staff was trying to cover the entire state. Bayh’s 20-year-old son, Evan, came to Iowa to pitch in.

Just three years apart in age, the younger Bayh and Rick Young became fast friends.

“Since money was tight, we would try to find folks who would put us up for the night, and I believe we stayed at some folks’ homes together a few nights,” Young said.

When the elder Bayh dropped out of the presidential race, Young heard through his new political friends about Phil Hayes, an Evansville resident then serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It would be another important moment in his life.

Young joined the 36-year-old Hayes’ ultimately unsuccessful primary election challenge to three-term incumbent Sen. Vance Hartke, serving as a county coordinator and a driver for the candidate.

It was a bitterly contested, scorched earth campaign. Hayes called Hartke “the least effective Senator in America today,” and accused Hartke of having “the least integrity” in the U.S. Senate.

When Hayes lost, Young went to Washington to work for him as a legislative assistant making $13,500 annually.

He was there only a few months, until Hayes’ term expired in January 1977 — but it was enough time to solidify a friendship with Hayes and to start a courtship with Young’s own boss. She was Hayes’ administrative assistant — Rose Iaccarino, daughter of powerhouse Democratic financier Louis Iaccarino, top political associate to three-time Evansville Mayor Frank McDonald Sr.

As Rose Young, she would later serve as an office or campaign aide to several Democratic elected officials, including a stint as chief of staff to Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel.

The Youngs were married in February 1979. The following year, after Rick earned his law degree at George Mason University Law School in the Washington area, the young couple moved to Evansville.

Doors opened for Rick Young all over town. He commenced a rapid rise in Democratic and judicial circles, first joining Hayes’ law firm as a partner. That was followed over the next few years by appointments to serve as head of city government’s legal department under Mayor Michael D. Vandeveer and as a part-time public defender.

Mark Owen, a longtime Democratic activist who worked in Birch Bayh’s Senate campaigns, said Young unquestionably benefited from his connections — but he was highly regarded in his own right.

“He was a sharp, young attorney,” Owen said. “He was incredibly smart, personable, friendly. People liked him.”

Young kept his hand in Democratic Party politics throughout the 80s, joining the legal team helping Democratic U.S. Rep. Frank McCloskey fight off a challenge to his 1984 election to Congress over Republican Richard D. McIntyre by a margin of four votes. He also served as Southwestern Indiana campaign coordinator for Bayh’s successful 1988 campaign for governor.

After Bayh’s election, the new governor tried hard to entice his former Iowa traveling companion into his state administration in Indianapolis. He offered to make Young the state’s new utility consumer counselor. Rose Young was offered the position of First Lady Susan Bayh’s chief of staff.

Rick Young demurred, saying he would have to close his law practice in Evansville. A Bayh spokesman told local newspapers that the governor-elect would continue to try to find positions for the Youngs in his administration — but Rick Young had other ideas.

The judicial phase

Young had acquired another patron that would prove crucial to his career — Circuit Judge William H. Miller.

When Miller stepped down after 25 years on the bench in 1989, Bayh appointed Young as a replacement. He was just 36 years old.

Young acknowledges he was likely Miller’s preferred choice to succeed him.

“Judge Miller, before he came on the bench, was a strong Democrat. I believe that he wanted someone a) who was qualified; and b) had a Democrat background. Now, he may have had it a different order there, but I like to think that qualifications were first, and then historic politics,” he said with a smile.

When Young learned in 1993 of then-federal judge Gene E. Brooks’ intention to leave the bench three years hence, he sprung into action.

During Young’s Senate confirmation process in 1998, he described “informal discussions” about the looming opening with a lengthy list of public officials, judges and lawyers. His efforts paid off. In late January 1997, he said, Bayh told him he would submit his name to then-President Bill Clinton for nomination to succeed Brooks.

Young took office in March 1998, having been approved by the Senate by a vote of 81-0. Nineteen senators were not present.

Among the senators voting to approve Young’s nomination: Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Sitting in his office Friday, Young recalled President John F. Kennedy as his earliest political influence. After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the youngster in Davenport, Iowa, avidly followed the political career of the president’s younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

For a moment Friday, Young was transported decades back in time.

“I remember Bobby Kennedy coming to Davenport, and they let us out of school to go downtown and see him,” he said. “That was very exciting.”

Leaving politics behind

Young professes not to miss the excitement and adrenaline of party politics and living for the next campaign. He still gets political mail, which he is happy to file away in the nearest trash can. He occasionally accompanies his wife to political functions — as her spouse, not a participant.

Young has voted in Democratic primaries several times during his judicial career. He cast his last such ballot in 2008, the year Indiana’s Democratic presidential primary assumed a pivotal role in the nomination battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Coming in to Evansville, not knowing a whole lot of people, becoming involved in politics was a way for me to meet a lot of people with similar interests,” he said Friday.

Nowadays, Young spends his off-time burying himself in books — he’s partial to biographies — playing golf with friends and enjoying his family. Since his childhood in Iowa, he has been an ardent fan of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. He and Rose have two grown children, a 33-year-old son with a wife and two grandchildren and a daughter, 30, living in Chicago.

Young may assume “senior status” in the federal judiciary when he turns 65, which would allow him to take a reduced caseload. But nothing is certain. He speaks of young, brilliant law clerks who give him energy.

“I’ll serve as long as I enjoy it, as long as I still care about the issues that are coming before the court,” he said. “But at this point I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing. It’s a wonderful job.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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