Judge John Paul Barnich: September 25, 1945–February 2, 2009
— Nancy Ford (Jennifer Rantz contributed to this story.)
Someone had to be first. In the case of openly gay judges in Houston, the first was John Paul Barnich.
Barnich was initially appointed to the Municipal Judge’s bench in 1999 by Mayor Lee Brown, and, thanks to continual re-appointments by Mayor Bill White, served 10 subsequent years as such.
He began his professional career as a schoolteacher for the Houston Independent School District. However, he wanted to do more. Earning his law degree from South Texas College of Law in 1980, Barnich began his private attorney’s practice in 1981.
As his practice grew, so did his résumé. A lecturer for Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University, Texas Human Rights Foundation Legal Seminars, and the Houston Bar Association, Barnich was a founding member of the Bar Association for Human Rights and a volunteer lawyer with the Houston Volunteer Lawyers. One of his cases was joined by the U.S. Justice Department, and led to the inclusion of AIDS under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But Barnich is perhaps best remembered as a pioneer in Houston’s GLBT community, originally inspired by a sign he saw on the wall at Mother Theresa’s clinic in Calcutta that read, “God is Love in Action.”
The affable Barnich also lived by the sentiment of another sign: the one on his office door read, “Be Nice or Leave.”
Barnich’s countless volunteer hours on behalf of the GLBT and HIV/AIDS community would entail handling untold numbers of pro bono cases. Additionally, he helped form AIDS Foundation Houston, serving on its board for several terms. The Greater Houston HIV Alliance, AIDS Equity League, Houston GLBT Political Caucus, the Harris County Democrats, Texas Human Rights Foundation, and the Annual Conference on AIDS in America also benefited and recognized his leadership and humanity.
One of his proudest legal moments came when, as lead council, he won the case in a suit against a well-known dental franchise for refusing to treat PWAs, forcing changes in the way dentists treated the HIV/AIDS population.
In 1999, he made it look easy as he took the bench beside other minorities of African-American, Hispanic, and Vietnamese judges, saying he felt included in a bigger sense of history, looking toward a future in which a gay man, such as himself, would not be considered a minority but simply as part of the bigger picture of what he called “this great city of Houston.”
John Paul Barnich, 63, died last month at Methodist Hospital of complications due to diabetes. Because he walked in them, Houston’s judicial halls have been forever changed for the better . — Nancy Ford (Jennifer Rantz contributed to this story.)