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Cynthia Holcomb Hall dies at 82; U.S. 9th Circuit judge

Cynthia Holcomb Hall often ruled on the conservative side of issues but occasionally surprised observers by going the other way. She was also known for the ornamental gardens at the Pasadena courthouse.

March 02, 2011|By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • A colleague remembered Cynthia Holcomb Hall as a true Renaissance woman whose passions for gardening, travel and photography were as fulfilling as her law career.
A colleague remembered Cynthia Holcomb Hall as a true Renaissance woman… (Los Angeles Times )

Senior U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall, a trailblazer for women in the federal judiciary who evoked both controversy and feminine tradition during a legal career that spanned six decades, died at her Pasadena home Saturday after a long battle with cancer. She was 82.

A controversial choice for the U.S. Tax Court when President Nixon appointed her in 1972, Hall weathered critics' efforts to have her thrown off the bench because of concerns that her husband's job heading the tax department of a Los Angeles law firm posed potential conflicts of interest.

But Hall was as well known for the ornamental gardens she created and nurtured at the Pasadena courthouse as she was for the opinions she penned in a judicial career that began with the tax court appointment. President Reagan named her to a U.S. District Court post in 1981 and to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals three years later.

Though on semi-retired senior status since 1997 and undergoing cancer treatment, Hall continued to hear cases until recently.

She was often on the conservative side of issues decided by the court, upholding in a 2007 ruling federal agents' right to infiltrate the private North American Man/Boy Love Assn. to investigate suspected criminal conduct and dissenting from a court majority in 2003 in a case that reinstated a wrongful-death suit against gun manufacturers in a Los Angeles hate crime.

She could also surprise court-watchers, though, as when she joined the majority in a 2006 ruling upholding an Alaska high school student's right to display a banner reading: "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."

"Judge Hall was a respected jurist who took strong positions and stood by them. She was a valued colleague and a good friend to many. She will be missed," 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said.

Senior Judge Betty Binns Fletcher remembered Hall as "a true Renaissance woman" whose passions for gardening, travel and photography were as fulfilling as her law career.

Hall "brought a beauty, quite literally, to the interior and exterior of the lives of her colleagues," said Senior Judge Michael Daly Hawkins. The grounds of the Pasadena courthouse where she had chambers, he said, "are among the most exquisitely landscaped of any public building this side of Versailles."

The controversy surrounding Hall's seat on the tax court eventually dissipated, only to be replaced years later, long after the 1980 death of her husband in an aviation accident, with Washington gossip in 1994 that she was romantically involved with Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. She deflected news media inquiries by saying she "certainly would not comment on anything concerning my personal life, or his."

Born Feb. 19, 1929, in Los Angeles, the daughter of a U.S. Navy admiral, Hall earned her undergraduate and law degrees at Stanford University and served as a reservist in the Naval Judge Advocate General Corps.

After clerking for 9th Circuit Judge Richard H. Chambers, she worked as a research assistant for the Tax Law Review, then earned a tax law degree from New York University. She served as a trial attorney for the Justice Department, then as an attorney advisor in the Treasury Department before a stint in private practice and her appointment to the tax court.

Hall is survived by her brother, Lowell Holcomb; daughter Desma Holcomb and son Harris Hall; four stepchildren, three grandchildren and six stepgrandchildren.

Plans were pending for a private family service and a court memorial.

carol.williams@latimes.com

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