Hon. Harry Pregerson 1923 – 2017 RIP

Judge Harry Pregerson

I interviewed Judge Harry Pregerson about ten years ago in his chambers in Woodland Hills.  I was writing a short profile of him for the San Fernando Valley Bar Journal.  To say he regaled me over four hours with stories is to put it very mildly.  He was seriously wounded in the Pacific at the Battle of Okinawa when he was 22 years old.  He spent a few months I believe recovering on the island of Tinian.  He loved talking about the time he presided over the Oakland Raiders v. NFL trial, especially how smart the lawyers were and a few little tricks that they played trying to get an advantage with the jury.  In the bankruptcy arena, Judge Pregerson was on the panel in the Kagenveama case and later on the en banc panel in Flores where he dissented.

The article I finally wrote is below the jump.  The LA Times article on his death is here.

Judge Harry Pregerson
“Senior Judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals”

            by M. Jonathan Hayes

Judge Harry Pregerson has sat on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for nearly 30 years now, appointed to that position in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter.  At 85 years young, he is the oldest active judge on the Ninth Circuit.   He has maintained chambers in a nondescript suite in Warner Center for 15 years; pictures of his former law clerks adorn the walls in the hallways, pictures of his family and other memorabilia adorn the walls of his chambers.

Judge Pregerson and four law clerks help rule on some 500 federal appeals cases per year out of the 12,000 to 15,000 filed in each of the past few years.  He and the other judges also rule on an extraordinary number of appellate court motions.

“Recently, myself and two other judges heard 441 motions over a three day period,” he said.  “We did it by video conference.  It was pretty intense and exhausting.”

And Harry Pregerson has a fascinating life story.  A native of Whittier, he grew up in Boyle Heights and enrolled at UCLA in 1942 at age 18.

“I joined the Navy ROTC which was mandatory at the time.  Two years later when I completed the program, I joined the Marine Corps as a 2nd Lieutenant.  There were rumors all over that the Japanese were going to land in Malibu any time.”

Fast forward to March, 1945, when Pregerson helped the Marines take Okinawa in the Pacific where he was badly injured.

“I spent about a month in the base hospital on the small island of Tinian,” he said. “The B52s that carried the atomic bombs to Japan were based and took off from there.”

Pregerson returned to UCLA serving as the Student Body President, and after graduation, entered law school at Boalt Hall in Berkeley.  After graduation there in 1950, he eventually settled in the San Fernando Valley.

“I never had the slightest notion that I would be a judge.  I had a trial downtown before a somewhat abusive judge and decided to run for a judge seat.  I thought I ran a pretty good campaign but I lost.”

Governor Pat Brown appointed him to the Municipal Court in 1965.

“By then I was doing very well financially and my first paycheck as a judge was a shock,” he laughed.  “But that was one of the best jobs I ever had.  I did prelims, small claims matters, trials.  I handled about 1,000 matters per month.”

In 1966, Pregerson was elevated to the Superior Court and in 1967 to the United States District Court where he became the 13th District Court Judge in Los Angeles.

“I had some wonderful cases there; the Oakland Raiders trial, the Equity Funding  Chapter X, the I-105 Century Freeway consent decree, the Hyperion Water Plant case.”

There were many other benefits from the experience.

“I learned so much from the lawyers in the Oakland Raiders trial; Pat Lynch, Joe Alioto and Max Blecher.  And after the Hyperion Water Plant case, I became known as the ‘Sludge Judge,’” laughing again.

And he had the added benefit in those years of working in the same building as his father, a post office employee who was badly injured in World War I.  Today his son Dean Pregerson sits as a District Court Judge there, wife Bernadine is a Professor of Microbiology at Pierce Junior College.

In 1979, Pregerson’s friend, Joe Corman, told Pregerson that he was going to get him elevated to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I said to him, why would I want to do that?   But when I got the appointment, I decided that I was so tired of being reversed by the Ninth Circuit, I might as well join it.”

On the Ninth Circuit, each judge sits for oral argument about 30 days per year.

“Those calendars are very arduous,” he said.  “We hear five or six cases per day and sit for five days straight, sometimes in Pasadena, and sometimes in San Francisco or other venues in the Ninth Circuit.”

Pregerson and his clerks spend a month to six weeks preparing for oral argument, reading all the briefs.  The panel meets after oral argument to decide the case.  Once a decision is reached, opinions are circulated and commented on.

“Some cases are easy to resolve but the difficult cases require a lot of work,” he said.

When asked what advice he would give attorneys, he said, “Keep Strunk and White by your desk and use it.  Don’t file long and boring briefs, with unfocused arguments.  And, most important, don’t serve emergency motions on Friday afternoon seeking help for something you caused yourself.”

Judge Pregerson is also a tireless advocate for the homeless.  He was instrumental in the creation of the Salvation Army’s Westwood Transitional Village, the Bessie Pregerson Child Development Center, and the U.S. Vets Westside Residence for Homeless Veterans.

In a recent article, Dean Christopher Cameron of Southwestern Law School and a former Pregerson clerk, wrote, “The real Mayor of Los Angeles is Harry Pregerson.  He cares about Los Angeles like nobody else.”

QUOTE:  “Municipal Court was one of the best jobs I ever had.”

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