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Alfred T. Goodwin, Judge in Pledge of Allegiance Case, Dies at 99

Alfred T. Goodwin, a federal judge who caused a furor in 2002 when he wrote the majority opinion in a decision that declared the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, finding that the phrase “one nation under God” violated the separation of church and state — a ruling that was later reversed by the Supreme Court — died on Dec. 27 in Bend, Ore. He was 99.

His son Karl announced the death, in a hospice.Nominated by President Richard M. Nixon, Judge Goodwin, who spent nearly all his legal career on the bench, was one of the longest-serving federal jurists in United States history.He started in 1969 as a district court judge in Oregon, and then served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which covers nine western states, for 51 years, until his death.

It was as a member of that court that he joined in a 2-to-1 decision that struck down the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. He wrote in his majority opinion that the words “under God” in the pledge were as objectionable as “we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no God’” would be.

The ruling came in a case filed by an atheist, Michael Newdow, against a school district near Sacramento where his daughter attended elementary school.

Judge Goodwin wrote that in defending the words “under God” in the pledge, the district was “conveying a message of state endorsement of religious belief.” The ruling compelled public schools in the court’s jurisdiction to stop requiring teachers to lead students in the pledge.

The political blowback was immediate, coming amid a wave of patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

President George W. Bush called the ruling “out of step with the traditions and history of America.” Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, said, “This decision is just nuts.” The Senate passed a resolution, by a vote of 99-0, reaffirming the language of the pledge.

Judge Goodwin stayed the ruling while it was under appeal to the full Ninth Circuit court. But he was unfazed by the criticism.

“I never had much confidence in the attention span of elected officials for any kind of deep thinking about important issues,” he told the Law.com website. “When they pop off after what I call a bumper strip headline, they almost always give a superficial response.”

Almost a year later, the full court let stand the decision, though over the vehement objections of nine of the circuit’s 24 judges. In the ruling, Judge Goodwin reinforced his earlier opinion, writing that “in the context of the pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation ‘under God’ is a profession of a religious belief, namely a belief in monotheism.”

But in June 2004, the United States Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-3, preserved “under God” in the pledge by ruling that Mr. Newdow had lacked standing to bring the case. The court did not rule on the constitutional issue.

Students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in 1985. Judge Goodwin’s 2002 ruling compelled public schools in nine western states to stop requiring teachers to lead students in the pledge. The Supreme Court later reversed the decision.Credit…Frank C. Dougherty

For a long time the Ninth Circuit had a reputation for being liberal, with its rulings being reversed at a disproportionate rate by the Supreme Court. Judge Goodwin accepted as almost inevitable that his decisions on the Ninth Circuit would be overturned if they were taken up by the Supreme Court.

“Out of the nearly 4,000 cases that we disposed of last year, I think the Supreme Court took about 28 of them,” he told the Oregon Historical Society in the mid-1980s. “Well, they didn’t take them to affirm.”

Alfred Theodore Goodwin, who was known as Ted, was born on June 29, 1923, in Bellingham, Wash., north of Seattle. His father, Alonzo, was a traveling Baptist minister who moved the family frequently. His mother, Miriam (Williams) Goodwin, was a homemaker.

His studies at the University of Oregon were interrupted by Army service in Europe and the Far East from 1943 to 1946. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in journalism the next year, he worked briefly as a reporter for The Eugene Register-Guard before turning to law. He earned his law degree from the University of Oregon in 1951.

Following four years in private practice, he became a state circuit judge in Lane County, Ore. He was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court in 1960 by Gov. Mark O. Hatfield, a Republican who, later as a United States senator, would twice recommend Judge Goodwin to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court.

One of Judge Goodwin’s opinions, in a 1969 case in which a motel owner claimed ownership of the beach outside his motel, preserved public access to all dry-sand beaches in Oregon. “He had many notable opinions,” said Mary Hay, a law professor at the University of Oregon, “but his most enduring legacy was this opinion.”

In his decision on the beach issue, Judge Goodwin wrote, “The rule in this case, based upon custom, is salutary in confirming a public right, and at the same time it takes from no man anything which he has had a legitimate reason to regard as exclusively his.”

In late 1969, when Judge Goodwin was first nominated for the federal bench, in the District of Oregon, Sen. Bob Packwood, Republican of Oregon, told a Senate subcommittee: “I can’t put a label on Ted Goodwin. He’s not a radical or a reactionary. He’s objective.”

He was approved as a district court judge, and, two years later, the Senate confirmed his appointment to the appellate court.

Despite the notoriety that arose from his Pledge of Allegiance opinion, Judge Goodwin had a reputation as a low-key jurist who did not crave the limelight.

“He always tried to decide things on very narrow grounds and didn’t reach out to make law,” Marc Zilversmit, who clerked for Judge Goodwin in the late 1980s, said by phone. “And if there was another judge on the panel who wanted to write the opinion of a case, even if Judge Goodwin was the senior judge, he’d defer and let the other judge have it.”

Judge Goodwin served on the Ninth District court with Anthony M. Kennedy, a future Supreme Court justice.

One of Judge Goodwin’s best-known cases was brought by Vanna White, the longtime host and letter turner on the TV game show “Wheel of Fortune.” Samsung Electronics and the advertising agency David Deutsch Associates, had, without her permission, depicted Ms. White in a published ad for videocassette recorders. In the ad, a futuristic robot, posing beside a game board that looked like the “Wheel of Fortune” set, wore a wig, a gown and jewelry that resembled Ms. White’s on-air look.

In his opinion in favor of Ms. White, Judge Goodwin drolly wrote: “Vanna White dresses exactly like this at times, but so do many other women. The robot is in the process of turning a block letter on a game board. Vanna White dresses like this while turning letters on a game board, but perhaps similarly-attired Scrabble-playing women do this as well.”

The court panel ruled, 2-1, in 1992, that Samsung and Deutsch had “attempted to capitalize on White’s fame to enhance their fortune.” Ms. White eventually received a settlement of $412,000.

In addition to his son Karl, Judge Goodwin is survived by his wife, Mary Ellen (Handelin) Goodwin; his daughter, Sara Clement; two other sons, Jim and Michael; his brothers, John and Sam; and his sisters, Ruth Goodwin and Miriam Chitty. His first marriage, to Marjorie Major, ended in divorce.

Judge Goodwin was the Ninth Circuit’s chief judge from 1988 to 1991 and then took on senior status.

“Simply put, being a judge was in his bones,” Mary H. Murguia, the current chief judge said in a statement after his death.

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