Renowned civil rights lawyer, former federal judge joins Berkeley Law staff

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UC Berkeley School of Law alumnus Thelton Henderson, a former federal judge and active member of the Civil Rights Movement, is leaving the bench and returning to his alma mater.

Henderson will work as a mentor and teacher for current law students, holding office hours and co-teaching parts of courses, according to a campus press release.

“He can teach our students what it means to have a judge’s perspective on litigation and on law as a tool for social change,” said David Oppenheimer, campus clinical professor of law. “He can teach them much about the meaning of constitutional rights in real terms, not as a matter of theory but as a matter of practice.”

Oppenheimer added that Henderson is hoping to work with students on pro bono matters and act as an adviser on the school’s various social justice projects.

Henderson’s accomplishments include helping to outlaw sexual harassment in California and introducing restrictions to solitary confinement in prisons. According to the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice website, Henderson was the nation’s first judge to declare that gay individuals are entitled to equal protection and due process of the law.

“What he brings to campus is … a lifetime of experience as a lawyer and as a judge, using law creatively, carefully … to make the world a better place and to make the law more just,” said campus law professor Catherine Fisk.

In 1996, Henderson blocked California’s Proposition 209, a state ballot measure that attempted to block affirmative action programs in public universities. According to its website, the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice was established in response to Proposition 209.

“We focus on exploring privilege, power, subordination, and equity and we support our students’ learning outside the classroom,” said Savala Trepczynski, executive director of the center, in an email. “As a judge, he’s always been uniquely willing and able to stand up for the least powerful among us.”

Trepczynski added that the center strives to teach Berkeley Law students how to be social justice advocates and understand that law and social justice go hand-in-hand.

According to Oppenheimer, Henderson is a well-known figure among Bay Area lawyers and judges. Campus law professor Leti Volpp clerked for Henderson from 1993-94 and said Henderson inspired her throughout the clerkship. According to Volpp, the way Henderson treated people in everyday interactions was “really instructive.”

“He’s a legal giant and a fantastic juror, and Berkeley is incredibly lucky to have him,” Volpp said. “He was a role model in terms of how to live a life and how to be a good person, as well as how to be a good lawyer.”

Contact Phil Zhang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @philzhangDC.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Henderson was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, he was not, though he was active in the Civil Rights Movement and interacted with King at times.