Judge Fisher’s opinions reflected
“a lifelong commitment to fairness and freedom for all.”
–Judge Fisher’s friend and mentor, Warren Christopher, as quoted in the Stanford Law Memorial, 2020.
Judge Raymond C. Fisher is remembered by his colleagues on the Ninth Circuit bench as a model of collegiality, by his clerks as a warm and genuine teacher, and by the city of Los Angeles as a leader of police reform. As a judge, he was committed to finding the right answer, and it was important to him that he consider how his decisions would materially affect the lives of others. His judicial philosophy reflected the lessons he had learned during his clerkships with Judge J. Skelly Wright and Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., experiences he described as pivotal to his legal career.
To Judge Fisher, judging was more than a matter of calling balls and strikes; he felt that “frequently, [judges] must also define the strike zone.” (Stanford Lawyer, 2010). This meant that in the effort of being as objective as possible, a judge must reckon with how his own experiences and beliefs bear upon his judgment.
“I have rarely found a decision that I’ve made to be absolutely crystal clear that I couldn’t make the argument on the other side; it’s just the argument [on the other side] isn’t persuasive, but there are many many cases where it’s real[ly] close,” said Judge Fisher in his 2015 Oral History interview.
This, to him, underlined a judge’s obligation to interpret the law with integrity, and not to distort it to fit one’s personal inclinations. He also understood the need to carefully consider the real-world impact of his decisions.
Judge Fisher always had an interest in politics, and his undergraduate degree was in political science. After law school, he decided to apply for clerkships in Washington, D.C. From 1966-1967 he clerked on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for Judge J. Skelly Wright. He then clerked in the U.S. Supreme Court for Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. from 1967-1968.
While he was clerking, school desegregation cases, a hot-button issue of the day, were front and center of the courts’ dockets. Judge Fisher’s later judicial philosophy reflected Justice Brennan’s influence in terms of regarding the Constitution as a living document. Judge Fisher considered these clerkships foundational to his legal career. “I just hit the jackpot with both judges,” he reflected in his 2015 oral history interview.
Key cases decided during Judge Fisher’s clerkships
While Judge Fisher was clerking at the D.C. Circuit Court and at the Supreme Court, the following pivotal cases were decided — exposure to which no doubt had a great impact on him.
- In Hobson v. Hansen (1967), Judge J. Skelly Wright held that the operation of the D.C. public school system unconstitutionally deprived the District’s Black and and poor public school children of their right to equal educational opportunity and ordered that the schools to be desegregated and that resources be apportioned more equitably.
- Terry v. Ohio (1967) stands for the proposition that it is constitutional for the police to “stop and frisk” a person they reasonably suspect to be armed and dangerous, and to be involved in a crime.
- The Supreme Court held in Green v. County School Board of New Kent County (1968) that the “freedom of choice” plan for desegregating schools was insufficient, and that the districts therefore must take intentional action to desegregate.
In the wake of the 1992 beating of Rodney King and ensuing riots, Judge Fisher served as deputy general counsel for the independent commission of the L.A. Police Department (also known as the Christopher Commission), which sought to investigate whether disciplinary measures for police officers varied based on race. He also spearheaded the creation of a database which tracked officers’ records and compaints filed against them, and oversaw the implementation of new term limits on LAPD chiefs.
Judge Fisher was instrumental in this effort, and is remembered by many as a staunch champion of police reform. His experience in this arena also informed his later judging, as he had seen first-hand both how dangerous police work is, as well as the potential for inequitable treatment by the police. After becoming Associate U.S. Attorney General in 1997, he continued to work closely with the LAPD.
As Associate United States Attorney General, Judge Fisher oversaw the civil, civil rights, antitrust, tax, environmental, and natural resources divisions. “He drew on that experience to become the consummate judge: always thoughtful and deliberate in his decisions but always concerned about the consequences of those decisions on the litigants,” Ninth Circuit Judge Richard Paez said in a statement (LA Times Memorial).
After he had served for several years at Associate Attorney General, President Clinton nominated Fisher to the Ninth Circuit in 1999.
“[Judge Fisher was] unafraid to empathize with the plight of people who were underrepresented in our society . . . He wasn’t someone who would automatically go with one side or another side. But ultimately, he was unafraid, he was courageous in the way that he would uphold individual rights and constitutional rights.’”
— Ninth Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw in an LA times Memorial
“He matched his intellectual rigor with thoughtfulness, reason, and compassion. His commitment to achieving a more fair and just society remains an inspiration to us all.”
— Western Justice Center (WJC) Vice-President Kalpana Srinivasan, former clerk for Judge Fisher, in a 2020 WJC Memorial.
“We each count others from the clerk family among our closest friends.”
–Michael Evans & Ellen Medlin Richmond
Authors of the Stanford Memorial to Judge Fisher
To his clerks, Judge Fisher was a committed mentor who stayed intentionally close with his clerk family, and made an effort to connect them with one another as well. Judge Fisher and his wife Nancy hosted annual lunches and dinners for his clerks, sent gifts to new “grandclerks,” and the Judge even presided over some of his clerks’ weddings.
In a 2020 memorial, former clerks of Judge Fisher Michael Evans and Ellen Medlin Richmond remembered how throughout the year Judge Fisher would return to the clerks draft opinions they had worked on with encouraging handwritten annotations: “In one year involving a particularly large number of environmental cases, he wrote, of one opinion, “The environment thanks you!” and on another, “Another victory for nature.” An opinion in an excessive force case was “clear, convincing, controversial, but right!!” A decision upholding a death sentence was “principled, painful.” When he disagreed with us, he was gracious and complimentary: “A very hard case; thanks for your critical skepticism and careful wordsmithing,” he wrote in one such instance.”
“As I look back on my 20 years on the court, I recall the prediction of one of my dear friends on my 1999 confirmation: the most joyful rewards of my judgeship would be my wonderful law clerks. How prescient and true. You are my proud legacy.”
— Judge Raymond Fisher, Law Clerk Reunion, October 2019