LOS ANGELES — Judge Harry Pregerson, who sat on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for nearly 40 years and championed the underprivileged on the bench and off, has died, his family said. He was 94.
The unapologetically liberal and occasionally controversial judge died Saturday night at his home near Los Angeles, his daughter-in-law Sharon Pregerson told the Los Angeles Times . He had suffered from respiratory ailments, she said.
The California native was appointed to the 9th Circuit in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. At his Senate confirmation hearing Pregerson said he would let his conscience inform his rulings.
"My conscience is a product of the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout Oath and the Marine Corps Hymn," he told senators. "If I had to follow my conscience or the law, I would follow my conscience."
He stirred criticism when he refused to follow a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding California's tough three-strikes sentencing law. Shortly after the court's decision, Pregerson dissented in rulings that upheld life sentences, some for relatively minor crimes.
Previously Pregerson angered some when he issued an order in 1992 to put a hold on the execution of Robert Alton Harris, who was already strapped inside the gas chamber. The Supreme Court later overturned Pregerson's decision, and Harris was executed as planned.
Conservatives were infuriated when he overturned death sentences and accused him of activism. Some prosecutors said they dreaded appearing before him, according to the Times. Pregerson said he simply believed that many death row inmates had not been given fair trials.
"You read the record in these cases, and you see what happened and how defendants' rights are not observed," he said.
He favored restraints on the power of the federal government and wrote a decision saying federal authorities lacked authority to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the decision.
"His was a jurisprudence that was really based on the recognition of the dignity of every person," UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky told the newspaper. "For him the law was much less about abstractions and much more about what it would mean in people's lives."
In private life, Pregerson worked to establish several homeless shelters, where he volunteered.
"He was full of love," Sharon Pregerson said. "He helped so many people. That was his mission. That's why he got up every morning."
He grew up in East Los Angeles, served as a Marine in World War II and suffered severe wounds in the Battle of Okinawa. He later graduated from UCLA and obtained his law degree from UC Berkeley.
A public square, a freeway interchange and a child-care center in Los Angeles bear Pregerson's name.
Besides his wife and two children, Pregerson is survived by a son-in-law, daughter-in-law, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.