Retired federal Judge William Schwarzer, a Republican appointee of President Gerald Ford, who, despite his conservatism on the bench became an advocate for repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing, has died at the age of 91.
Schwarzer was appointed to the San Francisco federal court in 1976 and served until he became director of the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) in 1990. He returned to the court in 1995 and served until his retirement in 2009.
His opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing law became clear in 1989 during the sentencing of a 49-year-old Richard Anderson, an Oakland longshoreman with no criminal record. Schwarzer was required by the law to impose 10-years in prison without parole for possession of crack cocaine because Anderson had given a drug dealer a ride to a meeting at a fast-food restaurant with an undercover federal agent.
Schwarzer sobbed during the sentencing of Anderson, who had no prior record but did have a reputation, after 24 years working on the docks, as an honest reliable worker. Under the 1986 sentencing law, Congress had stripped judges of most of their discretion in sentences, setting mandatory terms for specific crimes.
At Anderson’s sentencing Schwarzer said, “It behooves us to think that it may profit us very little to win the war on drugs if, in the process, we lose our soul.”
In 1990, he testified in favor of repeal of the mandatory sentencing law to a blue-ribbon committee charged with recommending changes in federal courts. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court restored some judicial discretion in sentences and in 2010 the severity of crack cocaine sentences was reduced.
The judge also served on numerous complex cases during his career and was frequently assigned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to sit on appeals panels
Schwarzer became known as an innovator in court procedures. While head of the FJC he created an office that provided assistance and education to foreign judges. He has written extensively on court procedure and case management.
Prior to joining the bench, Schwarzer, in 1975, served as senior counsel for the President’s Commission on CIA Activities Within the United States, also known as the Rockefeller Commission. The same committee also conducted a very preliminary investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy.
Schwarzer was born in Berlin, Germany in 1925 and served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1951 and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California.
In 1952, he joined McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen in San Francisco. He spent eight years in private practice working as a trial lawyer.