By Sudhin Thanawala
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal judge who lost his job as a Justice Department attorney after loaning his car to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and then pushed for gay rights, police reform and health care for prisoners during his time on the bench is retiring.
More than five decades ago, Thelton Henderson became the first African-American attorney in the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division – a position that brought him close to King and other civil rights leaders.
Henderson later went into private practice and served as a dean at Stanford Law School before President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench in 1980. He will retire in August.
Henderson said Tuesday he anticipates more civil rights battles under the administration of President-elect Donald Trump, but it’s time for him to move on and travel with his wife.
“I think the battles will be just holding the ground you’ve won on the racial front, employment, the whole gamut,” he said during an interview at his San Francisco office.
Henderson, 83, is suffering from an autoimmune disease that has weakened his muscles. He said he has found it more difficult over the years to get to and from court.
His departure will not trigger a new appointment since he had already vacated his seat by taking senior status in 1998 – a sort of semi-retirement for federal judges.
“I thought he brought credit and prestige to the bench,” said Vaugh Walker, a former judicial colleague of Henderson in Northern California. “I never got the sense that when you were on the other side of an issue with Thelton that there was any hint of ill-will or he doubted your good intentions.”
Henderson recalled that King asked to borrow his government rental car one day in Alabama for a trip from Birmingham to Selma because the car he was in had a tire problem. Henderson said he worried King could face danger if he got stranded, so he didn’t hesitate to turn over the rental car.
The move drew criticism that the federal government was wrongly taking sides in the civil rights debate. Henderson said he left the office after the department told him he wouldn’t be able to return to his work monitoring voting rights and potential police abuse in the South.
On the federal bench in 1987, he threw out Defense Department regulations that subjected gay applicants for certain security clearances to greater scrutiny, saying the rules violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
He oversaw reforms at the Oakland Police Department stemming from a 2003 lawsuit claiming police beat and framed drug suspects. He expressed his frustration when he thought the department was lagging and threatened a federal takeover.
In 2006, he appointed a federal receiver to oversee health care in California prisons, saying medical conditions violated prisoners’ constitutional rights.
Earlier, he struck down the state’s 1996 voter-approved ban on public affirmative action programs – a decision that prompted death threats that required U.S. marshals to guard his home.
Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent who backed the measure, said Henderson got the decision wrong.
“There are those who view this as a religion to preserve diversity,” he said. “They will abandon the law for the sake of advancing their religion.”
A photo in Henderson’s office of a black man separated from his white classmates by a partition despite a requirement to desegregate schools reminds him of his role to make sure people don’t bend the rules, the judge said.
“I’m fighting that,” he said. “Don’t pull any stunts like that to try to get around it.”