Thelton Eugene Henderson graduated from Berkeley Law in 1962—where he was one of just 2 black students in his class—and was the first black attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. In the Deep South, he protected voter rights alongside everyday citizens and visionaries like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench, where he has championed transformative justice for nearly four decades.
Judge Henderson has a remarkable ability—and willingness—to protect the vulnerable among us. In 1987, he became the nation’s first judge to declare that gay people, like racial minorities, are entitled to equal protection and due process of law under the United States Constitution. While the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, we now know that he was ahead of his time: twenty-eight years later, the United States Supreme Court agreed that gay people are entitled to marriage equality.
A steward of the environment, he is celebrated around the world for saving dolphins from the tuna industry. And he is credited with making the San Francisco Bay Area meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
With compassion and discernment, Judge Henderson continually enforced limits on the carceral state. He was on the panel that found California’s overcrowded prisons violated the Constitution and ordered 40,000 people released from prison. The United States Supreme Court affirmed this decision in Brown v. Plata. He also ordered the Oakland Police Department to submit to federal monitoring following authenticated reports of police brutality.
Judge Henderson has steadily vindicated the rights of women and people of color. Though his decision was later reversed, he ruled to strike down Proposition 209, California’s 1996 voter-approved ban on public affirmative action programs. His opinion provoked so many death threats that U.S. marshals had to stand guard outside his home. Five years before the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, Judge Henderson issued a ruling in favor of a plaintiff in a sexual harassment case which federal judges continue to cite.
Among his many awards are the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award, the State Bar of California’s Bernard E. Witkin Medal, the Pearlstein Civil Rights Award from the Anti-Defamation League, the Distinguished Service Award from the National Bar Association, the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Award for Professionalism and Ethics from the American Inns of Court, and the Judge Learned Hand Award from the American Jewish Committee. In August 2017, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California dedicated the Ceremonial Courtroom in the San Francisco Courthouse to Judge Henderson.
Judge Henderson’s last day on the bench was Friday, August 11, 2017. In September, he joined Berkeley Law as a Distinguished Visitor and continues to champion true justice.