Retired federal Judge Lawrence Karlton, a Sacramento institution, dies

From prison overcrowding to water policy, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K Karlton handled tough, high-profile cases.
From prison overcrowding to water policy, U.S. District Judge Lawrence K Karlton handled tough, high-profile cases. Sacramento Bee file

Lawrence K. Karlton, who arrived in Sacramento while in the Army and stayed to become a federal judge whose rulings were meant to help the disadvantaged people who needed them the most, died Saturday night at age 80.

Judge Kartlon retired from the bench at the end of last September and died of a heart problem at his home on the Garden Highway. His wife, Sue Karlton, his daughter, Emily Williams, and his beloved Charlotte, an 11-year-old wire-haired pointer, were with him on his bed when he died, Sue Karlton said. Williams, a daughter from Sue Karlton’s previous marriage, was 3 years old when her mother met Karlton and 10 when they were married.

“He loved his family and he loved the law, and was fiercely proud of both,” said Dale A. Drozd, a U.S. magistrate judge in Sacramento and the third person to serve as a Karlton law clerk.

Karlton built a legacy for protecting the rights of immigrants, prison inmates and others outside traditional power structures, and Marc Seitles, a former Karlton law clerk and now a criminal defense attorney in Miami, called him “a great liberal thinker.”

The judge served 35 years as a judge in the Eastern District of California, a sprawling area that covers more than half of California’s counties. He left private practice after 14 years in 1976 to accept an appointment to the Sacramento Superior Court by Gov. Jerry Brown, then in his first term as governor. He was nominated by President Jimmy Carter and confirmed to the federal bench in 1979.

I do the law. At times, that’s not conducive to the best social order. But that’s the job.

Judge Lawrence K. Karlton in an interview shortly before he stepped down last September

“Karlton’s written legal opinions on mental health care for inmates, amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and preservation of the environment will stand as lasting monuments to his deep caring for all living things,” Drozd said Sunday.

Karlton was one of three judges appointed by the chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to an unprecedented three-member panel to deal with the lack of quality medical and mental health treatment in California’s prisons. After a trial in 2009, the panel found that overcrowded conditions were the primary reason for unconstitutional health care, and ordered the state to reduce the population of its 34 adult prisons by thousands of inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court twice rebuffed Brown administration appeals, and the prison system’s population has now been reduced by even more than the judges mandated.

Karlton also guided national class action litigation that allowed undocumented immigrants who fit a certain profile to take advantage of an amnesty program that immigration authorities were blocking for otherwise eligible applicants.

He presided over a bitter and protracted legal confrontation between water users and environmentalists that eventually returned water and habitat viability to a part of the San Joaquin River.

And he upheld an educator’s right to prevent students from injecting their religious beliefs into high school graduation ceremonies, and slapped down professional debt collectors for predatory and intimidating tactics.

“Like few other judges,” said Sacramento criminal defense attorney Clyde Blackmon, “he understood that people could find themselves in difficult situations, but there were often mitigating circumstances.”

William B. Shubb, the longest-serving federal judge sitting in the Sacramento-based Eastern District, said Sunday that Karlton’s dedication to the law was contagious.

“I first witnessed his passion when he and I were opposing counsel on a case in federal court,” Shubb recalled. “Back then, it was a passion for his client’s cause. But he never lost that passion and, as a judge, it was transformed into a passion for getting it right. He instilled it in everybody that worked with him, other judges and his law clerks particularly.”

Drozd recounted that 10 days ago he visited his mentor, who was at home with hospice care.

“We had a long talk about a lot of things,” Drozd said with a bittersweet chuckle. “He asked me to bring him a copy of the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. He wanted to read it. So I did. I’m sure he was pleased. That was Larry Karlton.”

“I do the law,” Karlton said in an interview last year shortly before he stepped down. “At times, that’s not conducive to the best social order. But that’s the job.”

Karlton was born in May 1935 in New York City and grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a tough, ethnically diverse section of Brooklyn. Shortly after graduating from Columbia Law School, he joined the Army and soon found himself at what was then the Sacramento Army Depot. He was in private practice from 1962 to 1976, when he was tapped by Brown for the state court bench.

“I can tell you he was the bravest and most loving man I’ve ever known,” said Sue Karlton in a telephone interview Sunday. “He protected Emily and me with such love and vigor. He did such a beautiful job of raising Emily, with incredible care and wisdom. We are so lucky to have had him.”

Sue Karlton met the judge when she was an attorney in the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office, from which she is now retired.

He loved his family and he loved the law, and was fiercely proud of both.

Dale A. Drozd, U.S. magistrate judge in Sacramento and former law clerk for Judge Lawrence K. Karlton

“I told him I wasn’t a fan of judges because of the work I did,” she said. “But he was very hot; he had a new, fast car and I loved fast cars. He was a rock star and I was a groupie.”

Pacific McGeorge School of Law Professor Mary-Beth Moylan remembers Karlton as “a man who drew many bright, young lawyers to the Sacramento area from around the country because they had heard of him and wanted to be one of his law clerks.” Moylan, who clerked for Karlton, said, “He taught each of us to focus on the real people who would feel the impact of the decision.

“Few people realize how much he improved the quality of life in California through his work,” Moylan said.

In the same vein, retired U. S. Magistrate Judge Peter Nowinski said Karlton labored to the end of his tenure “to resurrect some of our constitutional rights that have been eroded.”

In the interview just before he retired, when asked what he would do, he said, “I would just like to rest. I’m tired.”

Asked if he could sit still after leading such an active life – horseback riding, dancing everything from ballroom to the Texas two-step, water skiing, traveling widely, among other pursuits – a rueful smile crossed his face and he replied, “I would like to see.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Karlton is survived by a brother, John Karlton of Miami; a sister-in-law, Darla Karlton; and three cousins. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Mychelle Karlton, to whom he was married for 35 years. She died in 1993.

Sue Karlton said there will be a graveside remembrance for family only. “Then,” she said, “in the not too distant future, there will be a celebration at the federal courthouse” in Sacramento.

Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:15 a.m. July 16 to add reference to Mychelle Karlton.