Thelton Henderson

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Thelton Eugene Henderson
Thelton Henderson Senior District Judge.jpg
Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California
In office
June 30, 1980 – November 28, 1998
Appointed by Jimmy Carter
Preceded by Cecil F. Poole
Succeeded by William Haskell Alsup
Personal details
Born (1933-11-28) November 28, 1933 (age 83)
Shreveport, Louisiana
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley (B.A., J.D)

Thelton Eugene Henderson (born November 28, 1933)[1] is currently a federal judge in the Northern District of California. He has played an important role in the field of civil rights as a lawyer, educator, and jurist.


Henderson received both his undergraduate and law degrees from University of California, Berkeley. In 1962, he became the Justice Department's first African-American lawyer in the Civil Rights Division. He was sent to the South to monitor local law enforcement for any civil rights abuses, a role that included investigating the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing which killed four girls. In this capacity, he became acquainted with Martin Luther King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, after winning over their initial skepticism of a government attorney.

After a stint in private practice, he served as director of a Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County office in East Palo Alto, California. In 1969, he became assistant dean at Stanford Law School, where he established the minority recruiting program and helped diversify the student body, and assisted in creating Stanford's clinical program. During this time, he also served as consultant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Office of Economic Opportunity, Carnegie Corporation, and Ford Foundation. In 1977, he left Stanford to form a law firm which specialized in civil rights, civil liberties and other issues of constitutional law, and also was a law professor at Golden Gate University.

Federal service[edit]

In June 1980, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as U.S. District Court Judge. From 1990 to 1997, Henderson served as Chief Judge for the Northern District of California. Since 1998, he has served as Senior Judge. In the late 1980s, Henderson presided over a long-running case over the fishing industry's practice of snaring dolphins in its tuna nets. Environmental groups charged that millions of dolphins had drowned because of the industry's refusal to follow existing safety regulations. He rejected attempts by the Clinton and Bush administrations to relax legal standards on fishing practices and loosen dolphin safe labeling on tuna.

In 1982 Henderson overturned the conviction of Johnny Spain, the only member of The San Quentin Six convicted of murder for the deaths of three California Correctional Peace Officers and two inmates in a riot and escape attempt led by Black Panther Party member and Black Guerilla Family founder George Jackson (Black Panther). In a landmark 1995 civil rights case, Madrid v. Gomez, Henderson found the use of force and level of medical care at Pelican Bay State Prison unconstitutional. During its subsequent federal oversight process, Henderson was known to visit the prison personally.

In a 1997 decision, he struck down Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action California initiative, as unconstitutional, but the next year a three-judge Court of Appeals panel overturned his decision. In 2005, Henderson found that substandard medical care in the California prison system had violated prisoners' rights under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment and had led to unnecessary deaths in California prisons.[2][3]

In 2006 he appointed Robert Sillen as receiver to take over the health care system of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; he replaced Sillen with J. Clark Kelso in 2008.[4]

Honors and recognition[edit]

Among his awards are the American Bar Association's Thurgood Marshall Award, the State Bar of California's Bernard Witkin Medal, the Pearlstein Civil Rights Award from the Anti-Defamation League, the Distinguished Service Award by the National Bar Association, the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Award for Professionalism and Ethics from the American Inns of Court, the Judge Learned Hand Award from the American Jewish Committee and the 2008 Alumnus of the Year Award from the California Alumni Association at the University of California, Berkeley. The Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at Boalt Hall is named for him. A documentary on his life, Soul of Justice by Abby Ginzberg, was released in late 2005.


  1. ^ Chorney, Jeff (August 9, 2005). "Judicial Profile: Thelton Henderson". The Recorder. 
  2. ^ Warren, Jenifer. "U.S. to seize state prison health system", Los Angeles Times, July 1, 2005; retrieved January 16, 2011.
  3. ^ Richman, Josh. "Inmates' health up to judge", Oakland Tribune, July 1, 2005; retrieved August 21, 2008.
  4. ^ Rothfeld, Michael. "State prison healthcare czar is fired", Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2008; retrieved January 16, 2011.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Cecil F. Poole
Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California
Succeeded by
William Haskell Alsup