In U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton’s courtroom, society’s outcasts had the same rights to human dignity as society’s most fortunate.
Karlton, who retired from the bench in September, died Saturday at age 80 at his home, with his wife, daughter and dog by his side. Probably more than any federal judge before him in Sacramento, Karlton protected the rights of people at the lowest rungs of society, for which we owe him our gratitude.
In 35 years, Karlton presided over thousands of cases. His rulings protected illegal immigrants who were illegally denied amnesty in the 1980s, and people on welfare who were facing cuts to medical benefits.
He invoked the law to affirm that spotted owls and San Joaquin River salmon have the right to exist, and ruled that the state of California could use tax money to pay for television ads criticizing the tobacco industry.
He protected the rights of schoolchildren from having to recite the “one nation, under God” clause of the Pledge of Allegiance, and of Muslims to practice their religion while in prison. His rulings were not always affirmed on appeal.
When Karlton barked at an attorney who had run afoul of him, he often apologized immediately.
But the U.S. Supreme Court did uphold his decisions in his most far-reaching case, a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of California inmates who are mentally ill. His rulings dating back to the 1980s helped improve the lives of tens of thousands of inmates diagnosed with mental illness.
Because of Karlton’s rulings, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation now makes greater efforts to guard against suicides, provide therapy to mentally ill prisoners and limit solitary confinement of them.
“The folks who ran the prisons didn’t feel a responsibility to provide constitutional health care for the inmates,” Karlton told The Bee’s Denny Walsh last year. “If the litigation has done nothing else, I think it has disabused them of that notion.”
Karlton had no particular political connections when Jerry Brown appointed him to the Superior Court in 1976, and when President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench in 1979.
He had been an ACLU lawyer who had represented underrepresented clients, draft dodgers, Vietnam War protesters, unions and their members, and the like, wrote Walsh, who had reported on Karlton for 25 years.
Karlton could be dismissive of and rude to lawyers he thought were unprepared. But he felt an obligation toward the dispossessed and applied the law in ways that protected the least among us. In so doing, he helped protect us all. No one could ask more from a judge.