When it comes to social justice, the Honorable Thelton E. Henderson (Class of 1962) is peerless.
Our namesake is a sitting judge on the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. His current docket includes front-page news like the 2010 San Bruno PG&E pipeline explosion, the Oakland Police Department sex scandal, and the class action against Starbucks.
Judge 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 US Department of Justice. President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench in 1980. In 1987, he became the first judge in the nation 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 clearly ahead of his time. Twenty years later, the California Supreme Court agreed that gay people are entitled to marriage equality.
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 incisive and brave opinion provoked so many death threats that U.S. marshals had to stand guard outside his home, and 209 remains the law in California.
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 cite as the rule to follow.
He is celebrated around the world for saving dolphins from the tuna industry. His environmental rulings are credited with making the San Francisco Bay Area the only area in the country that meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
Judge Henderson also served on the panel that ruled that California’s overcrowded prisons violated the United States Constitution and ordered the release of 40,000 inmates. The United States Supreme Court affirmed this decision in Brown v. Plata.
He ordered the Oakland Police Department to submit to federal monitoring following authenticated reports of police brutality.
Judge Henderson’s bravery, moral clarity, kindness, and legal prowess continue to right so many wrongs. We are honored by the privilege and responsibility of working in his name.