SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The federal judge overseeing California’s prison healthcare system and the city of Oakland’s police department plans to retire in August, raising questions about how reform of both troubled institutions will unfold.
Thelton Henderson, an icon of the U.S. civil rights movement, has presided over numerous high profile cases in more than 35 years on the San Francisco federal bench. In 2006, he took control of California’s prison healthcare system after finding that an average of one inmate a week was dying due to substandard care.
A court-appointed receiver said healthcare has improved in recent years, but the court still oversees several institutions in the prison system which costs more than $10 billion a year to run.
Henderson also supervises a settlement which gives him authority over the Oakland Police Department. City leaders last week announced a new police chief, part of an ongoing reform project.
In an interview, the 83-year-old Henderson said he does not have the stamina to do the job as well as he previously had. He declined to discuss what effect his decision might have on specific cases.
Henderson said he has mixed feelings about leaving now that Donald Trump is to become president of the United States, and several civil rights issues remain unsettled.
“These are the kind of battles I like, if I had the energy,” Henderson told Reuters. “But I don’t.”
Under court rules, a new judge will be appointed to oversee the cases, either randomly by computer or by court administrators.
Oakland was making progress on police reform when a sex abuse scandal engulfed the department last year, said James Chanin, an attorney who represents plaintiffs in the case that gave rise to the 2003 settlement.
Court oversight could still end this year, but a strong judge supervising the process is essential.
“Otherwise we’ll just have a fleeting success and start slipping backwards,” said Chanin. Henderson would be “sorely missed,” he said, but deserves a break.
Henderson was the first African-American attorney to investigate cases in the Deep South for the U.S. Justice Department in the early 1960s. He had to resign after loaning his car to Martin Luther King Jr., as Southern authorities said the federal government was taking sides.
He also worked on promoting diversity at Stanford Law School and in private practice. Henderson said he is pleased that the courts are far more diverse, particularly in Northern California.
“I never would have realistically imagined myself being a federal judge,” he said. “Its been the high point of my career.”
Reporting by Dan Levine; Editing by Mary Milliken