SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — There is a changing of the guard at the federal court in San Francisco.
This week, an esteemed judge will step down from the bench.
KRON4’s Pam Moore was off the anchor desk on Tuesday night but had a special look at a man you might not know, but he has helped shape policy in our country.
She’s talking about Judge Thelton Henderson, a remarkable public servant.
After nearly 40 years on the bench, this Friday, federal Judge Thelton Henderson will step down from the Northern District Federal Court.
Now in his 80s, Judge Henderson has delivered decisions in many high profile and often controversial cases.
How many times have you seen a judge getting applause from prisoners?
The appreciation is the result of a ruling by Justice Thelton Henderson. The lawsuit, some 20 years ago, charged deplorable conditions in state prisoner medical care.
Prisoner deaths were averaging one every six days.
“They had doctors in what looked like a broom closet,” Henderson said. “I saw them standing in line water dripping from (the) ceiling, standing in half-inch of water waiting to be seen.”
But now, there are big improvements. For example, San Quentin has a state-of-the-art health facility.
Henderson is soft spoken and mild-mannered–and many say “tough.”
He has made many rulings considered controversial, with sentences requiring actions beyond the norm.
In fact, he believes his rulings should carry lasting meaning.
“As a judge, I’ve been looking at cases and behind curtains of businesses and people for years,” Henderson said. “You’re dealing with institutions. You’re trying to change their culture. You’re trying to get them to do something they’ve been ordered to do and they resist it. That’s why it takes so long.”
Among his rulings, for the PG&E San Bruno pipeline explosion, he sentenced PG&E to the maximum fine.
A documentary called “Soul of Justice” by Abby Ginzberg chronicles his career.
He shot down both the Clinton and Bush administrations’ efforts to relax fishing and labeling practices involving dolphin-safe tuna laws.
In the Oakland police misconduct case from 2003, he forced the police department to make reforms that are still in progress.
“I was very disappointed when they got derailed by the sex scandal,” Henerson said. “In fact, I’d begun saying for the first time, I can see light at the end of the tunnel. But I think they’ll get in right.”
Arguably his most controversial decision was striking down Proposition 209, the voter passed ban on affirmative action in state agencies. It was a decision overturned by a higher court.
He was widely criticized and even threatened.
“I was so vilified,” Henderson said. “I had marshals protecting me for six months because of death threats.”
Nearly 20 years later, the United States Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in a similar case in Michigan.
“I say thank God for lifetime tenure because we can rule as we believe and take the shots while we do it,” Henderson said.
Henderson graduated from Berkeley’s law school in 1962.
He was hired to work for Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department as a neutral observer of police treatment of blacks during the turbulent protests in the south.
When Dr. Martin Luther King needed to travel from Selma to Birmingham in a car with bad tires, fearing Dr. King would be hurt or killed, Henderson loaned him his Justice Department car, creating a firestorm.
That forced Henderson to resign.
A few years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench.
At Berkeley law school, a center for social justice is set up in his honor and his picture graces the wall.
In August, the judge will be packing up for retirement.
“I hope my legacy is something like, ‘He cared about the people who appeared in his court, something like that would do me fine.'”
KRON4 has learned that the judges voted unanimously to name the ceremonial courtroom after Judge Henderson in the United States Federal Building.
What a deserved recognition!
Now, with retirement knocking on his door, he, his wife, and their dog Missy, plan to take car trips together and enjoy life on his own terms.
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