Thelton Henderson, the first African-American to serve as chief judge of the federal court in San Francisco’s Northern District, and the first African-American to work for the U.S. Department of Justice on voter rights cases in the South, plans to retire from the bench.
Henderson, 83, will leave the court in August after serving more than 35 years on the bench.
For much of his tenure, Henderson has presided over two long-running civil rights cases that sought to improve conditions in California prisons and another that focused on the Oakland Police Department and its conduct.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Henderson to the bench in 1980. He served as chief judge of the court from 1990 to 1997.
In a landmark ruling in 1995, Henderson declared the use of force and poor medical care in California’s maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison to be unconstitutional. The class action by inmates and long-running efforts to improve prison conditions led to a decision in 2005 in which Henderson found the medical care in the entire California state prison system to be substandard.
He held that the medical was so poor it violated prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights under the Constitution and had caused unnecessary deaths. Foot-dragging by prison officials over court-ordered improvements ultimately resulted in Henderson stripping the prison of authority over its $1.2 billion health authority and appointing a receiver to run it in 2006.
The recalcitrance by the prisons not only cost one top prison secretary his job but also resulted in Henderson’s appointment to a three-judge panel that ultimately ordered the state to drastically cut its prison overpopulation in order to improve prison conditions.
But it was not only prison conditions that Henderson oversaw. In 1997, he struck down the voter-approved anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209. A three-judge appeals court later reinstated it.
He oversaw settlement of a 2003 deal of Oakland police over allegations that the department engaged in systematic violation of suspects’ civil rights. The city agreed to widespread reforms including training, oversight and officer conduct standards.
Henderson forced the fishing industry to change the tuna fishing practices that often snared dolphins in tuna nets and cause thousands of the air-breathing mammals to drown. He rejected efforts by both the Clinton and Bush administrations to ease the legal standard on fishing and loosen the “dolphin-safe” labeling on tuna.
In 1982, Henderson overturned the conviction of Johnny Spain, the only member of the San Quentin Six convicted of murder in the deaths of three prison guards following a riot and escape attempt lead by Black Panther Party member George Jackson.
He joined the Justice Department in 1962, after receiving a law degree from UC Berkeley, and became the first black lawyer in the Civil Rights Division. His assignment was to go to the South to monitor law enforcement for potential civil rights abuses and he had a role in the 1963 investigation of the Baptist church bombing that killed four young girls.
But his career came to an abrupt end after he load his car to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., whose own car had a flat tire. The action drew criticism from conservative southern senators, who suggested Henderson had improperly taken sides. Henderson was forced to resign his post.
He went into private practice in the San Francisco bay area and at the Legal Aid Society in East Palo Alto. He also worked to recruit minority students to the Stanford University law school in 1968.