Obituary: Sacramento Judge William M. Gallagher, 93, decided controversial cases

William M. Gallagher, a veteran Sacramento Superior Court judge whose decisions in major cases stirred controversy, died Nov. 16 at 93, his family said.

Judge Gallagher, who was one of the longest-serving judges in Sacramento County, had a prominent career in public service. He was prosecuting attorney for the city of Sacramento from 1952 to 1961, when Gov. Pat Brown appointed him to the Municipal Court bench. He was elevated in 1964 to Superior Court and was chosen by his colleagues as presiding judge an unprecedented three times.

He left in 1980 and was a partner at Hefner, Stark & Marois law firm until a demand for judges to hear a growing number of cases led him to return to Superior Court in 1982. After a total of 45 years, he retired from the bench in 2008 at age 88.

Defying labels as conservative or liberal, Judge Gallagher made rulings in high-profile cases that drew attacks from various groups on the political spectrum. His decision to temporarily halt a key provision of the 1971 Welfare Reform Act outraged Gov. Ronald Reagan, who publicly accused the judge of “judicial misconduct” and committing “a flagrant violation of the public trust.” Reagan backed away from his comments after he was roundly criticized for making a personal attack on a member of the judiciary.

Earlier, Judge Gallagher sparked an uproar among civil rights advocates with a decision upholding Proposition 14, a 1964 ballot measure that amended the California Constitution to nullify the state’s fair housing law. The proposition eventually was declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The judge also made headlines with rulings that said burning the flag is not protected by the U.S. Constitution, ordered striking Sacramento firefighters back to work and held that gay students had a right to organize a campus group at California State University, Sacramento.

Born on Jan. 8, 1920, in Bozeman, Mont., William M. Gallagher moved with his family to Sacramento at 6. He graduated from Christian Brothers High School, St. Mary’s College in Moraga and Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He served in the Navy during World War II.

He had three children with his wife of 56 years, Betty, who predeceased him. He is survived by two daughters, Kathleen and Maggie; and a son, Michael.

After retiring from Superior Court five years ago, Judge Gallagher continued working for a while as an arbitrator.

“The law was everything to him,” his daughter Kathleen said.

A funeral service was held Nov. 22 at W.F. Gormley & Sons Funeral Chapel in Sacramento. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the American Heart Association.