Judge John G. Heyburn II dies after battling cancer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Six suitcases sat packed and piled by the back door.

Michael DeLeon and his husband, Greg Bourke, hadn't even had a chance to sit down and unpack before they got the phone call: Judge John Heyburn had passed away. The couple tried to process the news. This was the judge that had made their recent trip possible – a trip to Washington DC for the Supreme Court to hear the same-sex marriage case. It was Heyburn who had ruled the same-sex marriage ban in Kentucky to be unconstitutional leading to this week's stance in front of the Supreme Court.

"You know he was a judge that was fair," said DeLeon. "He saw the inequality in our lives and he made a judgment to fix that."

Born in Boston in 1948 but then raised in Louisville, law was in Judge Heyburn's blood. His father and grandfather were both attorneys and Heyburn himself was a private practice attorney in Louisville for 16 years.

Then in 1992 Heyburn was nominated to the bench by President George H. W. Bush at the recommendation of Sen. Mitch McConnell.

"He was not a liberal judge, he was not a conservative judge, he was a thoughtful judge," Kent Wicker, an attorney and friend of Heyburn's said.

Heyburn served on the bench for over 20 years, but the case he will be the most well-known for, his legacy, ended up being one of his last in the final year of his life. While he was battling opinion, law and constitution with regards to his same-sex marriage ruling, Heyburn was also battling liver cancer -- a fight that ended Wednesday evening at the age of 66.

"He was a very courageous judge," Wicker added. "He wasn't afraid to make a hard decision or make a decision that people wouldn't agree with."

"He even mentioned that in his ruling that people would disagree with him on religious grounds but it was his job to interpret the constitution," DeLeon said.

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An interpretation he thought deeply about and then fought hard to defend. Just about five months ago in November, Heyburn discussed his decision and explained his thought process with regards to his same-sex marriage ruling.

But now, thoughts are with him and his family, and as DeLeon and Bourke finally picked up their bags and unpacked, they were thinking of the man who made their trip to the Supreme Court possible.

"We just have this profound sense of loss for someone that we never really knew," Bourke said.

Heyburn is survived by his wife and two sons. According to an official statement on his death he battled liver cancer for almost four years.

Senator Mitch McConnell released a statement shortly after Heyburn's death was announced:

"Today our commonwealth says a sad goodbye to a great Kentuckian, Judge John G. Heyburn II. Known for his searing intellect, fiercely competitive spirit, and quick wit, John Heyburn untangled countless legal knots and delivered sweeping legal opinions on cases of incredible complexity over his more than two decades on the federal bench. And yet the thing you were most likely to remember about his chambers were all the photos of his wife Martha and their beloved sons Will and Jack. John was always dedicated to family first, and I think that's how he'd want us to remember him. Elaine and I mourn the passing of our dear friend, a man whose intelligence, good humor and upstanding character I have greatly admired since our paths first crossed on the campaign trail in 1971. We send our heartfelt condolences to Martha and the rest of the Heyburn family, and to the many, many friends this good man leaves behind."

U.S. Judge Charles Simpson, a close friend and colleague of Heyburn who worked with him since 1992 said the following:

"A close colleague and a dear friend." "An excellent judge, a great legal mind but he could also understand the humanity of the people in front of him. His absence will leave a really large hole."

"I never asked John what he hoped to be remembered for, but I know it would be as a great father and a great husband and a good judge. In that order."

"He was a decent and kind human being with a great legal mind."

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes:

"I am deeply saddened to learn of Judge John Heyburn's death. For the more than 20 years Judge Heyburn served on the bench, he demonstrated respect for the law and the parties that came before him. He was an outstanding jurist. My thoughts and prayers are with his family."

Governor Steve Beshear:

"Judge Heyburn's passing is a tremendous loss for the state and for the courts. Equal parts thoughtful and thought-provoking, Judge Heyburn possessed the unique character that makes for a good judge – a devotion to detail, an appreciation for the weight of words, a curious mind, and a gracious manner for all who entered his courtroom. While he will certainly be remembered for his impressive legal work, many will also remember his kindness and empathy. Jane and I will keep his wife Martha and their sons, Will and Jack, in our prayers."

Attorney General Jack Conway:

"I am saddened to learn of the passing of United States District Judge John Heyburn.

Judge Heyburn was an incredible person, a student of the law and a judge who always made certain that the rights and interests of everyone were protected in his courtroom."


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