Harry Pregerson first served on the Los Angeles County Municipal Court and then the Los Angeles Superior Court.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. While on the District Court, Judge Pregerson handled a number of significant cases. The following are just two of those.
U.S. v. Zaugh
A veteran and Patriot himself, Pregerson believed that everyone ought to do their duty to serve their country. But after visiting Lompoc Prison, where a conscientious objector that Pregerson had sentenced for draft dodging was incarcerated, he made up his mind not to send anyone else to prison for objecting to the Vietnam War draft. This was not an easy decision.
The next case he heard on the issue was that of Robert Paul Zaugh, who had refused a medical examination mandated for the draft. Although most judges of the day would have convicted Zaugh, Pregerson allowed Zaugh to testify, and then acquitted him of draft dodging, convicting him instead only on the lesser charge of refusing the medical examination.
Zaugh, a friend of filmmaker Terry Sanders, invited Sanders to film Judge Pregerson’s memorial service, which led Sanders to create the documentary Ninth Circuit Cowboy about Pregerson’s life.
Pacific Legal Foundation v. Quarles
Pregerson presided over the case that sought to hold the Hyperion Treatment Plant accountable for water pollution in the Santa Monica Bay.
Pregerson brought the key players together to find a solution, rather than fighting and blaming one another.
In 1979, Judge Pregerson was nominated to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter. When pressed at his Senate confirmation hearing as to whether, if forced, he would choose to abide by his conscience or the law, Judge Pregerson said:
“My conscience is the product of the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout Oath, and the Marine Corps Hymn. If I had to follow my conscience or the law, I would follow my conscience.”
“His was a jurisprudence that was really based on the recognition of the dignity of every person. For him the law
was much less about abstractions and much more about what it would mean in people’s lives.”
— DEAN ERWIN CHEMERINSKY, UC Berkeley Law School
to the L.A. Times in 2017.
Keith v. Volpe
When plans were announced to construct the Century Freeway, Judge Pregerson was concerned for the citizens through whose homes the freeway would run.
Overseeing a years’ long consent decree that extended past his time on the District Court into his time on the Court of Appeal, Pregerson made sure the decree considered the needs of those marginalized citizens whose homes were set for destruction; included an affirmative action employment initiative; and an apprenticeship program so freeway jobs could go to those who needed them most.
The outcome of this project is the Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, named in his honor.
Watch a Southwestern Law School program on “Judge Harry Pregerson and the Legacy of the Century Freeway Litigation on Its 50th Anniversary.”Watch Here
Last-minute stay of execution
The Judge was ill at ease with the death penalty, believing it brought out the worst of human traits. This led him to call for a stay of execution for convicted killer Robert Alton Harris.
Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Co.
Harrah’s Casino had a policy which required women to wear makeup, but prohibited men from doing so. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit panel majority ruled that the policy did not constitute sex discrimination because it affected men and women equally.
Pregerson dissented, writing, that “[t]he inescapable message is that women’s undoctored faces compare unfavorably to men’s, not because of a physical difference between men’s and women’s faces, but because of a cultural assumption—and gender-based stereotype—that women’s faces are incomplete, unattractive, or unprofessional without full makeup.”
Pregerson’s concern for equality in the workplace extended to his own chambers. Remembering Pregerson’s consideration for what working women go through, former clerk Justice Maria Stratton remembered Judge Pregerson saying, “If you [get] pregnant? No problem, just bring the crib into chambers and set it right up.”