California Forum

A legal giant steps down

The old lion of Sacramento’s federal court has left his lair for the last time.

No longer will Lawrence K. Karlton’s roar be heard reverberating through the spacious 15th-floor courtroom at 5th and I Streets where he presided.

There is little chance we shall see his like again.

Karlton brought to the bench an unparalleled intensity and overwhelming desire to get the outcome of a case right, no matter how long it took, how far down he had to dig.

But, as nobody else ever to sit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, he remained a controversial figure. Conservatives, law enforcement, self-appointed guardians of the Constitution never tired of trying, albeit with a spectacular lack of success, to link his personal ideology to the way he did his work.

“I do the law,” Karlton declared in a recent interview before stepping down. “At times, that’s not conducive to the best social order. But that’s the job. There are always those who disagree. It comes with the territory.”

President Jimmy Carter appointed Karlton to his seat on the district court bench and, without much doubt, no president since would have chosen him. And, there is slim possibility of someone like him being tapped in the foreseeable future.

He had not clerked in the federal judicial system. He had not been associated with a prestigious law firm. He had no political connections of the kind that result in a lifetime appointment to a coveted position. Quite the contrary, he had been an ACLU lawyer who spent years attacking establishment targets, including federal and state governments, on behalf of disenfranchised and underrepresented clients – draft dodgers, Vietnam War protesters, unions and their members, and the like.

He had been appointed to the Sacramento Superior Court bench in 1976 by Gov. Jerry Brown, then in his first term, when Brown made judicial appointments that were seen as off the wall. Karlton’s record as a state court judge, however, did give Carter something to look at.

Karlton grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant, a tough, ethnically diverse section of Brooklyn. He worked summers at the resorts in the Catskill Mountains to pay for college. After graduation from Columbia Law School, he was living in Florida and contemplating his next move when he was drafted. He wound up at the Sacramento Army Depot, developed an affinity for the town, stuck around after his discharge and hung out his shingle.

Karlton has no explanation for either judicial appointment.

He had no ties to the Brown administration. With respect to the federal post, he said he got a call from a member of a screening committee set up by the late Alan Cranston, then a U.S. senator from California. Karlton sat down with Cranston for approximately an hour.

“The next thing I know, I had been nominated to fill Judge (Thomas J.) MacBride’s seat,” Karlton said.

The nomination sailed through the Senate.

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” Karlton said. “But how it happened remains a mystery.”

When his name came before the Senate in 1979, there was still some semblance of mutual courtesy, some recognition that a chief executive is entitled to his judicial selections, not middle-of-the-road compromises. The circus that now passes for the nomination and confirmation of judicial appointments probably would have snagged Karlton on his liberal views.

In the 35 years since, Karlton has served with honor and distinction. The record speaks volumes.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals usually affirmed his decisions, though it was well stocked with appointees of Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. and George W. Bush. Some of the reversals were rulings by him against prisoners suing over alleged abuses of their civil rights or petitioning for relief from state court prison sentences.

Reversal didn’t bother him. Mostly, he was confident he was right, but moved on to follow the dictates of his appellate brethren.

Periodically he would remark, only half in jest, “If I knew who is going to be on the (appeals) panel, I would know how to rule.”

As U.S. Magistrate Judge Allison Claire, the 20th of 42 Karlton law clerks, put it, “He taught us to develop humility, to subordinate our own inclinations and respect the opinions of others. He taught us that our job was to figure out what the law is and do what the law requires, even if it was a throw-up moment.”

Claire said the first thing Karlton taught his clerks was that the file is not the person, that the humanity and dignity of every party – including litigants without attorneys, criminal defendants, prisoners – are to be respected.

After 23½ years of watching Karlton in court and on paper, I can say he practiced what he preached.

Even when he barked at an attorney who had disappointed him, he often apologized immediately.

He may have seen some evidence as relevant where other judges would not. But he blocked the admission of just as much evidence as any other judge. He may have granted a suppression motion where other judges would not. But he denied as many as any of his colleagues. If a triable issue of fact was present in a civil suit, he would find it and insist it be resolved by a jury. But he granted as many defense motions for summary judgment as anybody else.

Karlton was a bit more cynical than many judges when it came to squabbles among big corporations and other heavily endowed entities. If a $600-an-hour attorney launched into a recitation on the high-minded and socially responsible motives of his client, there was a chance Karlton would cut him short, demanding, “It’s about money, isn’t it?”

What gave him genuine agony was sentencing people to long stretches in prison. His emotions were never far from the surface, and he sometimes closed the door of his office and cried after a particularly distressing sentence.

Did that make him less of a man? Hardly. It did make him human. He is also street-smart and one of the toughest-minded individuals I’ve known. Combine those attributes with a superb intellect, and you have Karlton.

“I swore to do my duty,” he said about the lack of discretion in sentencing. “It has to be done. It’s just that I believe our criminal laws may not be the most effective way of curbing crime. The problem is, the only alternative is a complete overhaul of the system, with no guarantee it would work. What we have may be the best we can do.”

He has presided over some of the most contentious and important cases in the courts, matters that have ultimately improved the lives of thousands.

For example, 25 years ago, he guided a national class action that made it possible for undocumented immigrants who fit a certain profile to take advantage of an amnesty program that federal immigration authorities were implementing unlawfully.

Probably his best-known case is a long-running and still ongoing battle to bring treatment of California’s mentally ill inmates into line with the Eighth Amendment ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment. The class action dates to 1990, and involves a special master appointed by Karlton to oversee that treatment in the state’s 34 adult prisons. In conjunction with that lawsuit and a related one in San Francisco federal court, he sat on a specially created three-judge court that forced a reduction of the inmate population in the dangerously overcrowded institutions.

The U.S. Supreme Court twice rebuffed Brown administration appeals of rulings by that court.

“The folks who ran the prisons didn’t feel a responsibility to provide constitutional health care for the inmates,” Karlton said. “If the litigation has done nothing else, I think it has disabused them of that notion.”

He has been criticized by Brown and others for repeatedly refusing to return the care of mentally ill prisoners to the state, even though the treatment has improved dramatically.

Does anybody really believe that Karlton would deliberately drag out a heated, complex and socially significant lawsuit? If so, they would do well to consider a little-noticed and long-forgotten moment in a protracted legal fight to return water and viability to a part of the San Joaquin River.

First, it’s important to understand that the environment is one of Karlton’s favorite areas of the law, especially its place in the California water wars. He much preferred wrestling with an environmental dispute to viewing images of the twisted bodies of pepper-sprayed mental patients. Yet, in a footnote to one of his most important decisions in the natural resources case, which had by then been before him nine years, he wrote:

“At some point, both because of the need of the parties for resolution and as a concession to the shortness of life, (the dispute) must be resolved. There is no question that this case has reached or exceeded the boundaries of patience if not reason. Accordingly, the court will send it on its way to the 9th Circuit and conceivably beyond, having done the best it can and now feeling the urgent need to attend to the some 560 other cases on its docket.”

Now, at 79, Karlton has stepped down, gone for good as of last Wednesday.

“It’s time,” he said with a certainty tinged by resignation, acknowledging he will miss it “terrifically.”

Some district judges have cited the pay as a reason for leaving the bench to take up more lucrative pursuits.

Their goals were different than Karlton’s. It was never about money for him, nor about power or status. He never abandoned the hope that he was doing all he could to improve the quality of our lives, and he loved the give and take, the rough and tumble, the diversity of cases. The knottier the problem, the better he liked it.

Sometimes, after listening to oral arguments and taking the issues under submission, he would tell opposing counsel:

“I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe I’ll take two and hit to right.”

As for the reason for retiring, Karlton, who had heart-related surgery not long ago, said: “I don’t think I am quite up to doing a very important job as well as I should. You have to be careful not to overstay your effectiveness.”

He should rest easy. To the end, every time Lawrence Karlton interpreted and applied the Constitution, that enduring blueprint of our democracy was in very good hands.

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