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Judges Known for Support of Civil Rights

The federal jurists who blocked California's vote are considered to the left of the 9th Circuit's center. All were named by Democrats.

September 16, 2003|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The three federal judges who voted Monday to block the Oct. 7 recall election are all considered liberal jurists and were appointed by Democratic presidents to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but only one is generally referred to by colleagues as a judicial activist.

Judges Harry Pregerson, Sidney R. Thomas and Richard A. Paez are to the left of center on the 26-member appeals court, which is often at odds with the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court. Pregerson is considered one of the most liberal judges in the country.

"I predicted they would go this way as soon as I saw the panel," said Chapman University School of Law Professor John Eastman, who directs a conservative, nonprofit think tank.

The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that the Oct. 7 election cannot proceed because six California counties, in which 44% of all voters reside, would be using outdated voting equipment prone to error. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee, said that Paez and Thomas are well-respected on the court, even by judges who are much more conservative.

"I have tremendous respect for Paez and for Thomas in particular, as a judicial craftsman and for being sound and reasonable," said Kozinski, who had not read the ruling and said he could not comment on it in any case. "Pregerson is a good craftsman, but he is quite overtly activist."

Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt, a Carter appointee on the 9th Circuit, said the three judges are "inclined to be strong believers in civil rights and the 14th Amendment."

Pregerson, 79, also a Carter appointee, tried to stop the execution of Robert Alton Harris in 1992 before being slapped down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Harris, a convicted murderer, was the first person to be executed in 25 years in California.

During his confirmation hearing in 1979, Pregerson said that if the law conflicted with his conscience, he would vote with his conscience.

"He doesn't care about being reversed, and he makes no bones about it," said Vikram Amar, a professor of law at UC Hastings. "Having Pregerson on the panel catches the U.S. Supreme Court's eye."

A Marine Corps lieutenant in World War II, Pregerson obtained his undergraduate degree from UCLA and his law degree from UC Berkeley.

While Pregerson's liberal views are widely know, Thomas, 50, who was appointed by Clinton, has been more difficult to characterize. He is "more on the moderate side" than his fellow judges on the panel, said Eastman, of Chapman law school.

Thomas, who practiced civil law in Montana, is described as a steady, smart and unflappable judge.

In a 1997 interview, Thomas said he probably would be called a moderate, by both Montana and national standards. He said he was not a result-oriented or an activist judge. But since becoming a judge, Thomas has not ducked controversy.

"I've always been attracted to people who, in times of political or social upheaval, show great moral courage," he said. "People like Martin Luther King."

Earlier this month, Thomas wrote a decision that overturned the death sentences of more than 100 prisoners throughout the West. The 8-3 decision relied on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said only juries, not judges, could decide whether someone should be executed. The high court did not say whether the decision should be applied retroactively, but Thomas applied it to death row inmates whose appeals already were final.

Thomas obtained his law degree from the University of Montana School of Law and his undergraduate degree from Montana State University.

Another Clinton appointee, Paez, 57, had trouble winning confirmation from the Senate. A Mexican American Mormon, Paez waited four years before the Senate finally sent him to the 9th Circuit. Republicans complained at the time that he was too liberal for the court.

Paez was attacked for having spoken out against Proposition 187, the initiative that would have denied services to illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in the state.

But the American Bar Association, which reviewed Paez's qualifications, gave him its highest rating. During his confirmation hearing, Paez named David H. Souter, appointed by former President Bush, as the jurist on the U.S. Supreme Court he most admired.

Paez was previously a federal district judge in Los Angeles. He received his undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University and his law degree from UC Berkeley.

Paez also practiced law with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the California Rural Legal Assistance.

UC Berkeley Law Professor Stephen Barnett had expected the 9th Circuit to rule against the ACLU, but said Monday that he would "not be surprised at anything this panel would do."

"It just goes to show you that the 9th Circuit marches to its own drummer," Barnett said.

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