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UK Initiative Honors Judge Who Played A Pivotal Role In Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Josh James
Dr. Martha Heyburn, the widow of U.S. District Judge John Heyburn, announces the creation of the John G. Heyburn Initiative for Judicial Excellence at the University of Kentucky.

A new judicial initiative at the University of Kentucky will bear the name of the judge who reversed the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

The John G. Heyburn Initiative for Judicial Excellence will establish an archives and oral history program for the state’s federal judges, along with a lecture series to debut with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in 2017. The announcement Monday drew high profile speakers – including Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, who called Heyburn a “dear friend.”

The late Heyburn presided over 7,654 cases as an Article II judge, but his widow, Martha, told the audience he took particular care with his 2014 decision striking down Kentucky’s constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage.

"On the marriage equality case alone, I found 26 drafts of his opinion, representing how hard he labored to get this issue right," she recalled.

Afterward, she told WUKY many of Heyburn’s decisions struck a chord with the public, but the marriage case prompted perhaps the most memorable response.

"While he was even alive, he and I both heard from people, had people stop us in restaurants and on the street, called us, wrote us notes, emails, because they felt their dignity had been restored or a child was safe that hadn't been safe," she said.

She said the initiative is meant to spark a continuing conversation about the rule of law and fuel constant improvement in the judiciary.

Heyburn passed away in 2015.