When U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez wrote the very first sentence in his 94-page bombshell ruling that late last week struck down California’s decades-old ban on military-style “assault weapons,” he wasted no time setting the tone that has endeared him to gun rights advocates and infuriated critics such as Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” the judge wrote, calling the weapon “good for both home and battle.”
In the span of just a few years, the San Diego senior judge with the colorful and controversial temperament has issued rulings gutting California’s extensive restrictions on gun ownership that are among the strictest in the country, from overturning the state’s ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines in 2019 to blocking the state’s background checks for ammunition buyers in 2020.
And each time the state of California has quickly appealed his decisions — as it vows to do again with last week’s ruling — setting up another 2nd Amendment showdown.
So who is Roger T. Benitez?
He’s a Cuban immigrant whose sharp-tongued rulings have quickened the pulses of conservatives throughout his almost quarter century on the bench.
Born in Havana, Benitez attended Imperial Valley College and San Diego State University before earning his law degree in 1978 at Western State University College of Law, now Thomas Jefferson School of Law.
He spent two decades in private practice from 1978 to 1997 before former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, appointed Benitez as a judge on the Imperial County Superior Court.
Nominated to the federal bench by former President George W. Bush in 2003, Benitez was confirmed by the Senate in June 2004. Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, noted he had put himself through college and said his “life embodies the spirit and strength of this nation.”
But the nomination was not without controversy.
Hatch said one bipartisan committee recommended Benitez “after a thorough review of his record and experience,” and another bipartisan nominating commission found him to be “highly qualified.”
“Judge Benitez is fair, rational, intelligent, and just,” said Eduardo A. Rivera, a lawyer and former Democratic mayor of Calexico, according to Hatch.
The American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary, however, deemed Benitez “not qualified.” California lawyer Richard M. Macias, writing for the committee, said that “over and over I received negative comments regarding Judge Benitez’ judicial temperament.”
“All too frequently, while on the bench, Judge Benitez is arrogant, pompous, condescending, impatient, short-tempered, rude, insulting, bullying, unnecessarily mean, and altogether lacking in people skills,” Macias wrote.
Even before his recent string of rulings on Second Amendment cases, Benitez showed a flair for blunt, colorful language and using vignettes and examples to make his points.
In 2010, he ruled in favor of a Poway Unified School District math teacher’s right to display banners in class with patriotic expressions of faith such as “God Bless America” and “In God we Trust,” blasting the district for allowing other diverse religious and anti-religious classroom displays.
The Poway school ruling was reversed on appeal by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.
His recent rulings on California’s gun laws are those for which he is best known.
He opened his ruling against California’s large-capacity magazine ban by citing cases in which women defending themselves with guns might have wished for more bullets.
“The mother shot six times, hitting the intruder five times, when she ran out of ammunition,” Benitez wrote. “Though injured, the intruder was not incapacitated. Fortunately, he decided to flee.”
In overturning the state’s requirement for background checks to buy bullets, he led off by stating: “The experiment has been tried. The casualties have been counted. California’s new ammunition background check law misfires and the Second Amendment rights of California citizens have been gravely injured.”
Benitez went on to call the Constitution’s Second Amendment “the Rodney Dangerfield of the Bill of Rights,” a reference to the late comic whose famous laugh line was that he got no respect.
“Well, Mr. Dangerfield can feel better about himself now,” Benitez wrote, “because with Proposition 63,” the 2016 ballot initiative that imposed the ammunition background checks at issue, “the Second Amendment gets even less respect than he does.”
Benitez took a similar approach in his ruling against the assault weapon ban with his Swiss Army knife line, although the ruling also wielded some choice statistics.
Benitez noted that “the banned ‘assault weapons’ are not bazookas, howitzers, or machineguns,” calling them “ordinary, popular, modern rifles” and adding that “according to F.B.I. statistics for 2019, California saw 252 people murdered with a knife, while 34 people were killed with some type of rifle,” AR-15 or otherwise.
Still, his approach didn’t sit well with Newsom, who said that “as the son of a judge, I grew up with deep respect for the judicial process and the importance of a judge’s ability to make impartial fact-based rulings.”
“But the fact that this judge compared the AR-15 — a weapon of war that’s used on the battlefield — to a Swiss Army Knife completely undermines the credibility of this decision,” Newsom said, “and is a slap in the face to the families who’ve lost loved ones to this weapon.”