California Forum

Sacramento’s federal court shaped by character of its judges

Judge Kimberly J. Mueller is sworn in as the first female federal judge in the Eastern District Court during a investiture ceremony at the courthouse in March 2011.
Judge Kimberly J. Mueller is sworn in as the first female federal judge in the Eastern District Court during a investiture ceremony at the courthouse in March 2011. Sacramento Bee file

No segment of society has more impact on the quality of our lives than the federal courts. They are the guardians of the rights guaranteed us by the U.S. Constitution.

Still, comparatively few individuals have direct contact with federal courts, and most people have only a vague awareness of their existence.

It was without fanfare, then, that the federal judicial authority based in Sacramento – the Eastern District of California – achieved a significant milestone this year: its 50th anniversary.

The district opened for business in Sacramento on Sept. 18, 1966. Six months earlier, 34 mostly rural counties officially ceased to be backwaters of the Northern and Southern districts when Congress designated them the Eastern District.

The district’s sweeping expanse stretches from the Tehachapis on the south to the Oregon border on the north, and from the Coast Ranges on the west to the Nevada border on the east. If it were a state, it would be the 12th largest of the 50.

“We went from a small-town outpost of a larger court headquartered in San Francisco to a separate and independent judicial district,” U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb said during a recent series of interviews.

“In many ways, the first day was routine, but all of us who were there at the time seemed to recognize that we were participating in an historical event,” said the 78-year-old Shubb, now the longest-serving judge on the Eastern District bench and a walking encyclopedia of its history.

In a public discussion marking the golden anniversary on Sept. 16 this year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a native of Sacramento, and Shubb agreed that the district’s history is best viewed by looking at the judges who served it.

“The growth of our court over the last 50 years, as I have observed it, has been shaped largely by the character of the judges who preceded me and the emergence of the various technological advances we have been able to employ,” Shubb said.

His father had distinct memories of Abraham Lincoln, and told his son stories about Lincoln. That accounts in part for Judge (Sherrill) Halbert becoming a Lincoln scholar.

U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb

Shubb, a 1963 graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Law, went to work for Judge Sherrill Halbert as a law clerk when Sacramento was still part of the Northern District. Halbert, a stern, no-nonsense judge, sat as the only federal judge in Sacramento for seven years. Shubb remembers his mentor fondly.

“He was born in 1901 on a sheep ranch in Tulare County that his family homesteaded in 1881,” Shubb related. “His father had distinct memories of Abraham Lincoln, and told his son stories about Lincoln. That accounts in part for Judge Halbert becoming a Lincoln scholar.”

Halbert’s collection of Lincoln literature and memorabilia is now housed in the Anthony M. Kennedy Learning Center and Library on the first floor of the federal courthouse in Sacramento.

“He was a Californian, but a rural Californian, and he was folksy in some ways,” Shubb recalled. “My favorite Halbert saying is, ‘Anything with more moving parts than a crowbar is bound to break down.’ I use that all the time.”

By 1961, a second judgeship was authorized, and Thomas J. MacBride, a young assemblyman, was appointed by President John F. Kennedy.

Soon after MacBride moved into chambers in the old post office building, he proudly showed his somewhat modest courtroom to a friend and prominent Sacramento attorney, Nathaniel “Nat” Colley.

When Colley saw it he exclaimed, “Oh, this will never do!”

“Why?” MacBride asked.

“Well,” Colley replied, “whenever I go to federal court I always charge more because my clients are convinced it is so much more important than state court. But now, when they see this courtroom, that’s not going to work.”

In 1962, Halbert and MacBride moved into the court’s new home at 650 Capitol Mall. It turned out its design left a lot to be desired.

Halbert discovered the bench was on the same level as the rest of his courtroom. The judge would hear no cases until the bench was elevated, enabling him to appropriately peer down on the lawyers before him.

In the mid-1960s, a consensus began to develop that the judges in Sacramento were ready to assume independence. Chief Judge Richard H. Chambers of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put his considerable influence behind the movement and, on March 18, 1966, Congress enacted Public Law 89-372, creating the Eastern District, effective six months later.

By the time you were eligible to take senior status, you were dead most of the time.

Judge Myron D. Crocker

This brought into the fold a third judge, Fresno’s Myron D. Crocker, a salty, blunt ex-FBI agent. In the court’s oral history, Crocker lamented a rising tide of litigation and told the interviewer a district judgeship “isn’t the soft job that it used to be.”

“It used to be kind of a retirement-type job,” Crocker said. “In fact, we didn’t used to have senior judges that amounted to anything. Because you usually didn’t get appointed till you were 60 or 65, and by the time you were eligible to take senior status, you were dead most of the time.”

Crocker said the best part of the job is that “instead of getting ulcers, you now give ulcers.”

As a practicing attorney, Crocker recalled, on his way to a trial he worried whether the witnesses would show up and whether their testimony would match what they had told him earlier.

As a judge, “I turn on the radio and try to figure out who won the baseball games … and not caring whether the witnesses show or what’s going to happen. I think that added 10 years to my life.”

Kennedy remembered MacBride’s “wonderful sense of humor. He was a very charismatic presiding officer. He ran a lively courtroom with good humor and great respect for those who appeared before him, which was reciprocated.”

MacBride presided over two of the most famous Eastern District cases: the so-called “Roseville explosion” litigation and the prosecution of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme for her attempt on the life of President Gerald Ford.

Early on the morning of April 28, 1973, residents of the Sacramento area were awakened by explosions. Bombs were being transported from Hawthorne, Nev., to the Bay Area in boxcars of a Southern Pacific train. As the train passed through Roseville, the bombs ignited. The railroad and the government fought it out in court over the cause and responsibility for the devastation suffered by homeowners. The case ended with a $15 million settlement. The non-jury trial lasted more than two years, the Eastern District’s longest.

Fromme, a follower of then-imprisoned murderer Charles Manson, pointed a pistol at Ford as he walked through Capitol Park in Sacramento on Sept. 5, 1975. She pulled the trigger, but the weapon did not fire.

Determined to act as her own attorney, Fromme did not seek an acquittal and, instead, sought to use the trial to bring public attention to her adopted environmental cause. The trial focused the nation’s attention on the bizarre events unfolding in MacBride’s courtroom over several weeks. She was convicted and sent to prison and later paroled.

Fromme engaged in so many raucous outbursts that MacBride finally ordered her removed from the courtroom. But not before she beaned the prosecutor with an apple meant for MacBride.

The sooner we as a bench reflect our society as a whole, in all ways, the better we’ll be able to maintain the public’s trust.

Magistrate Judge Kimberly J. Mueller

MacBride was succeeded as chief judge by Philip C. Wilkins, who had been appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1969. Wilkins, an avid baseball fan, always attended the World Series. Shubb, an Oakland native and baseball addict, said that one year, when the A’s were in the series, he told Wilkins he would like to attend the games in Oakland.

“I asked him not to set any of my cases for court proceedings on those dates,” Shubb said.

However, Wilkins set one of Shubb’s cases for trial during the series. “I said, ‘Your Honor, that’s the week we are going to be in the Bay Area,’” Shubb recalled. “He paused momentarily, then said, ‘Oh! The conference, the conference,’ and promptly vacated the trial date.

“From then on, whenever I was going to a ballgame in the Bay Area, I said I was going to the conference,” Shubb said.

By 1991, the work of the district had become so heavy that Congress authorized an additional judgeship. President George H.W. Bush appointed Garland E. Burrell Jr., the first African American to sit in the Eastern District.

By random turn of the assignment wheel, it fell to Burrell to handle the district’s most famous case: the prosecution of Theodore Kaczynski, the notorious Unabomber.

Kaczynski, a mathematics prodigy, taught at UC Berkeley before retreating to a survivalist lifestyle in the Montana woods. Between 1978 and 1995, he mailed and planted homemade bombs that killed three people – including two in Sacramento – and injured 23 others. After one of the longest manhunts in U.S. history, he was captured in 1996.

Although there was a guilty plea before trial, the case attracted worldwide media attention, with news reporters, their mobile homes and equipment trucks filling a city block across Capitol Mall from the courthouse, which became known as “Camp Kaczynski.”

The wait for a conspicuously overdue woman on the district bench finally ended in 2010, when President Barack Obama bestowed on Magistrate Judge Kimberly J. Mueller the coveted lifetime appointment.

“The sooner we as a bench reflect our society as a whole, in all ways, the better we’ll be able to maintain the public’s trust. It is that trust on which we depend to play our essential role in the country’s system of checks and balances,” said Mueller, who is still waiting to be joined by another woman.

“We’ve come a long way,” Shubb mused, looking out his 14th-floor window over the city and the years. “It’s been quite a ride.”

Denny Walsh, former Bee reporter, covered federal courts for 25½ years. Contact him at