By Andrew Cohen
Judge Harry Pregerson ’50, a fierce advocate for the disenfranchised who spent a half-century on the bench, died November 25 at his Los Angeles home. Pregerson, who had been suffering from respiratory ailments, was 94.
He began his judicial career on the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1965, was promoted to the California Superior Court the following year, and joined the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in 1967. Twelve years later, President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
In the years that followed, Pregerson became known as a jurist who steadfastly followed his conscience and fervently protected marginalized individuals and communities. Fellow Ninth Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon ’73 called him “a man of principle, enormous compassion, and indefatigable energy. He was also an extraordinary friend … he once arranged a flu vaccine for my husband Stephen when it was scarce and he heard Stephen needed it because of an illness.”
Pregerson valued the underprivileged both on the bench and off. A vocal critic of inadequate representation for capital defendants, he ordered an 11th-hour hold on the execution of Robert Alton Harris in 1992 while Harris was already strapped inside the gas chamber. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned that decision, and Harris was executed as planned.
In 2003, Pregerson refused to follow a Supreme Court ruling that upheld California’s stringent three-strikes sentencing law. He later dissented in rulings that upheld life sentences for relatively minor crimes.
Pregerson railed against failures of the criminal justice system, from politically driven prosecutions to prison overcrowding. In a 2015 interview with Berkeley Law’s Transcript magazine, he said mandatory sentences meant “many federal prisoners serve sentences that are twice as long as they need to be,” an outcome he deemed “illegal and unconstitutional.”
“What distinguished him as a jurist was his seeing law not as abstract principles, but in terms of what it meant in people’s lives,” said Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. “He was a model for other judges in wanting to use his immense power in a way that respected the dignity of every person and sought to improve our world.”
Fellow Ninth Circuit Judge and Berkeley Law Professor Emeritus William Fletcher called Pregerson “a true giant,” lauding him for “never losing the sensibility of a trial judge” after joining the federal appellate bench.
“He never lost sight of the individuals whose cases came before him,” Fletcher said. “For Judge Pregerson, the guiding principles were simple—use the law to do justice and to make people’s lives better. Berkeley Law can be very proud to claim him as our graduate.”
The judge was captured in action in Citizenfour, a 2015 film about whistleblower Edward Snowden that won the Academy Award for best documentary. A clip of courtroom footage shows Pregerson scolding an assistant U.S. attorney for suggesting that the judiciary need not concern itself with National Security Agency activities.
While labeled a liberal judge by some prosecutors, Pregerson regularly called for restraining the federal government’s power—a traditionally federalist position often espoused by conservatives. One of his decisions held that federal authorities lacked authority to interfere with state medical marijuana laws, a ruling the Supreme Court subsequently overturned.
Known for his legal knowledge and engaging stories, Pregerson had a wide range of interests and looked out for others’ health, Berzon said—even arranging physical training sessions for his colleagues on the court.
He also looked out for the underprivileged, helping to establish several Los Angeles homeless shelters, childcare centers, and job training facilities in some of the city’s neediest areas. In addition, Pregerson assisted homeless military veterans and worked to overturn a city ordinance banning the homeless from living in vehicles in Los Angeles—where his name appears on a childcare center, a public square, and a freeway interchange.
“On and off the bench, Judge Pregerson always spoke up for immigrants, workers, homeless veterans, and the environment,” said Ninth Circuit Judge Richard Paez ’72. “He was concerned about government overreach and sensitive to the rights of defendants … and an inspiration to his colleagues, law clerks, and the greater Los Angeles community. As a colleague and fellow Berkeley Law alum, it was an honor and privilege to serve with him on the Ninth Circuit.”
In 1972, Pregerson blocked construction of a freeway on the heels of a civil rights lawsuit. In the settlement that approved the project, he helped draft an agreement mandating the hiring of women and minorities for many of the construction jobs. When told about the dearth of sufficiently trained women and minorities to fill those jobs, he established a training program near the freeway site to teach basic carpentry and iron work.
“I can’t think of anything more important than to try to help as many people as you can,” Pregerson told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. “That is a big motivator for me. Sometimes the law is not very compassionate.”
Pregerson also mentored many of his law clerks over the decades, including Lindsay Muir Harris ’09, who won Berkeley Law’s annual Sax Prize for Clinical Advocacy as a 3L. Now a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia and co-director of its Immigration & Human Rights Clinic, Harris said Pregerson treated his clerks “like family.”
“What has stuck with me most—and what I try to impart to law students engaged in social justice work—is what Judge Pregerson taught me about being persistent in the quest for true justice,” Harris said.
The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Pregerson was born in Los Angeles on October 13, 1923. He served as a Marine in World War II and graduated from UCLA before attending Berkeley Law. Pregerson then spent 14 years in private law practice before becoming a judge. After 50 years on the bench, including 36 with the Ninth Circuit, he took senior status in 2015.
Pregerson faced both physical and emotional hardship. He was severely wounded in World War II’s Battle of Okinawa, and later in life needed two ski poles to walk. In 2013, his grandson, David Pregerson, died at age 23 in a hit-and-run accident while walking.
Nevertheless, “he was full of love,” daughter-in-law Sharon Pregerson told The New York Times. “He helped so many people. That was his mission. That’s why he got up every morning.”
Pregerson is survived by his wife, Bernardine, his children Katie and Dean, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. A public memorial service will be held Friday, December 1, at 1 p.m. at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to GrowGood, a nonprofit urban farm in East Los Angeles that provides organic food to a Salvation Army shelter.
“He was a fine judge,” Berzon said. “But it was, to me, as an out-of-court humanitarian and an irreplaceable human being that he shone above all others. I cannot say how much I will miss him.”