Starting in the late 1980s, I appeared as a trial lawyer before U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton scores of times, representing state prisoners with serious mental illness. I came to know the man.
When I learned he died, I felt the sudden loss of a significant symbol of justice, fairness and equality in our society. I write to celebrate his contribution to civil and human rights, and to remember him as a judge and as a person.
Karlton was deeply troubled by the plight of the men and women I represented. He was offended by changes to California’s criminal justice system and the closing of state hospitals that led to the imprisonment of many deinstitutionalized patients. He could not and would not tolerate the denial or delay of minimally adequate psychiatric care for them.
He focused extraordinary attention and his keen intellect on reducing California’s high rate of prison suicides and the failure to provide timely access to psychiatric hospitalization.
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In his final year on the bench, he issued extensive remedial orders concerning prison issues. His legacy is substantial for prisoners, who may never know his name.
Karlton’s passion for justice, respect for human dignity and understanding of the suffering and pain experienced by a person with mental illness were evident in groundbreaking decisions he published.
The intensity of his passion and caring also was evident in the courtroom. But he did not suffer fools gladly. He could be gruff, impatient and demanding.
And sometimes the evidence presented was simply too much to bear.
In April 2006, my firm presented images of suffering captured on video without prison officials intervening. A 60-year-old homeless man had been returned to prison as a parolee to receive psychiatric care. He committed suicide in November 2005 at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy. His transfer to a mental health crisis bed had been delayed. A photo taken hours before his death showed him huddled in the corner of a holding cell, with no bed, mattress or sink and a hole in the floor for a toilet.
In 2005, a 28-year-old man with an extensive history of psychiatric hospitalizations was housed in San Quentin State Prison. Officers failed to transfer him to a hospital, despite finding him floridly psychotic with self-inflicted injuries to his head and eyes. Photos taken the next day showed him gouging out his eyes, a gruesome process that continued for more than an hour with no intervention by the staff on suicide watch.
Karlton was visibly angry at the evidence of these unnecessary tragedies. He demanded that I take down the photos. The images were too much.
In a 2008 trial that led to the landmark decision declaring California prisons unconstitutionally overcrowded, I showed hundreds of photographs of gyms and day rooms filled with men and women on triple bunks, crammed together like sardines.
Karlton and Judges Thelton Henderson and Stephen Reinhardt stared at the human misery portrayed in prison after prison, seeing what many witnesses had described with words. The photos were so overwhelming, shocking and troubling that Karlton demanded that we stop before we had finished.
In 2013, we introduced videos documenting officers repeatedly pepper-spraying seriously mentally ill prisoners to force them to comply with orders. After showing six of the 20 pepper-spray incidents, Karlton was overcome. He had seen enough.
Karlton made no effort to disconnect his humanity, feelings and passions from his work. He was all in. Witnesses and attorneys who appeared before him understood that. Those of us who had the privilege to practice before Karlton are forever inspired to do more by his example.
Michael Bien is a partner with Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP of San Francisco.