Lawrence K. Karlton, a federal judge known for his sweeping decisions that ordered thousands of convicts released from California prisons, died Saturday at his Sacramento home. He was 80.
In his three decades on the federal bench, Karlton presided over many high-profile cases including several involving California’s troubled prison system. In 2009 he forced the overhaul of California’s prison health care system and ordered the state to reduce prison overcrowding.
“He wanted to get his position right. He required lawyers to work harder to answer his questions.”
One of Karlton’s orders drew the attention of no less than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who characterized it as “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history” after the Supreme Court majority voted 5 to 4 in 2011 to order California to reduce the number of convicts in state prisons.
At the time, the prison system was roughly 71,000 inmates over-capacity.
Karlton was born in Brooklyn in 1935. After receiving his law degree from Columbia in 1958, Karlton served in the Army and worked for the Army as a civilian legal officer in Sacramento.
Karlton was appointed to the Sacramento County Superior Court by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976, after serving in private practice and as a volunteer lawyer covering civil liberties cases for the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Karlton as a judge for the Eastern District of California. He retired in 2014.
He is survived by his wife, Sue Karlton, and by a daughter from a previous marriage, Emily Williams.
“His experience in the judicial system is remarkable,” said attorney Iris Yang who used to cover him as a journalist. She said he had a “brash New York style.”
Defense attorney Malcolm Segal, appeared before Karlton both as an assistant U.S. attorney and defense attorney for 35 years.
“Whether I won or lost, few judges have given cases as much thought,” Segal said.
In 2013, Segal represented Scott Salyer, who pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering and fixing the price of tomatoes sold by his firm, SK Foods. Karlton sentenced Salyer to six years in prison.
A significant issue in this case was Karlton’s determination that due process of law was present for Salyer, says Segal.
Before the plea, Karlton took the unusual step of allowing Salyer to have a special room in the jail where he was being held so he could study the complex documents in the case.
“This was a perfectly appropriate decision,” Segal said.
Judge Morrison England who served on United States District Court for the Eastern District of California with Karlton said he had a real presence.
“He was an icon in the legal community,” Morrison said. He said that Karlton was known for his “cut to the chase” attitude. He said that he admired his hard work and said he always kept a full caseload regardless of his seniority. He said he was “definitely tough but a sweet, sweet man.” England said Karlton showed his firmness with one of his more difficult cases, one regarding the Pledge of Allegiance.
Karlton ruled in 2005 that the pledge’s reference to “one nation under God” was unconstitutional in that it violated the right to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God.”
His decision was overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010.
Donald Heller, of Donald H Heller Law Corporation in Sacramento, knew Karlton for 42 years.
Heller sad that even if he disagreed with the judge, he appreciated how thorough Karlton was in reading all of the material and asking questions to understand it.
“He wanted to get his position right. He required lawyers to work harder to answer his questions,”Heller said.
England laughed when he talked about the “Karlton wave.”
The “wave,” he said, was Karlton’s typical reaction to a difficult situation. Karlton would simply wave one or both hands in the air to demonstrate a lack of excessive worry.
“He was known for it,” England said. “He will always have a special part in my heart.”
Ed’s Note: Shannon Flaherty and Jessica Hice are Capitol Weekly interns from the Public Affairs Journalism Program at the UC Center Sacramento.