Ceremonial Courtroom Dedicated to Departing Senior Judge Thelton E. Henderson

At a ceremony honoring departing Senior Judge (and Chief Judge Emeritus) Thelton E. Henderson, the Court dedicated the Ceremonial Courtroom on the 19th floor of the San Francisco Courthouse to him. Judge Henderson’s last day at the Court was Friday, August 11.

Judge Henderson at Ceremonial Courtroom DedicationJudge Henderson was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to a seat vacated by Judge Cecil F. Poole and was appointed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California one month after his nomination—on June 30, 1980. Judge Henderson served a full seven-year term as Chief Judge of the court from 1990-1997 before assuming senior status on November 28, 1998.

Before his appointment to the federal bench, Judge Henderson worked in private practice in San Francisco (1977-80) and Oakland (1964-66), served as Assistant Dean of the Stanford Law School (1968-77) and Directing Attorney of the East Bayshore Neighborhood Legal Center in East Palo Alto (1966-69), and served as an Attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (1962-63). Judge Henderson received both his B.A. degree (in 1956) and his J.D. degree (in 1962) from the University of California, Berkeley. Between college and law school, he served as a corporal in the U.S. Army (1956-58). While practicing law in San Francisco, Judge Henderson taught at Golden Gate University School of Law (1978-80).

Judge Henderson has received numerous awards, including:

  • ABA Thurgood Marshall Award (2013)
  • American Lawyer Lifetime Achievement Award (2012)
  • UC Berkeley Alumnus of the Year (2008)
  • American Inns of Court Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Award for Professionalism and Ethics (2005)
  • State Bar of California Bernard Witkin Award (2004) 

In addition, Judge Henderson was the subject of an award-winning one-hour 2006 documentary entitled Soul of Justice: Thelton Henderson`s American Journey, produced and directed by Abby Ginzberg.

In his years on the bench, Judge Henderson became especially well-known for his work on institutional reform cases. He was one of the judges on a three-judge panel convened by the Northern and Eastern Districts of California that ordered a reduction in California’s prison population to ease overcrowding. The order was affirmed in 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Henderson also continues to preside over a civil rights lawsuit, Allen v. City of Oakland, arising from alleged misconduct by the Oakland Police Department that has been pending since the year 2000. 

Judge Henderson serves on the boards of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at Berkeley Law and of Stiles Hall at U.C. Berkeley. He also enjoys poker and fishing and is often accompanied by his canine companion, Missy.

In his years on the bench, Judge Henderson mentored 54 law clerks. One such law clerk is now District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam of the Northern District of California, who recalls his year as a law clerk to Judge Henderson as a formative professional experience:  

“Since the first day I arrived in Judge Henderson’s chambers as a brand new law clerk, I was privileged to watch him model what an ideal federal judge looks like. He showed me how to approach cases with intellectual rigor and unquestionable integrity, to be decisive and tough without ever being arrogant or disrespectful, to be courageous in following the facts and the law wherever they lead, and to leave every person who appeared in his courtroom with the firm conviction that they were truly listened to, no matter the outcome of the case. I carried all of Judge Henderson’s lessons with me through my career as a lawyer, and I draw on them every day as a judge. Judge Henderson has contributed immeasurably to the mission of delivering fair and impartial justice in our district, and I will miss his presence on our court enormously.”

Of Judge Henderson’s departure from the bench, Chief Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton observed:

“Judge Henderson has served the Northern District of California with tremendous distinction since 1980 as an active district judge, chief judge and, for the past eighteen years, a remarkably productive senior judge. He has modeled an extraordinary judicial temperament, handling some of the most challenging high-profile cases in our district with a calm and unflappable demeanor and a gentle sense of humor. His remarkable accomplishments in the institutional reform cases he has overseen for many years are all the more noteworthy for the fact that he has simultaneously handled a substantial caseload of routine cases, even as a senior judge, and has continued to be an steadfast friend and mentor to us all. We will miss Judge Henderson very much.”

In accordance with the Court’s usual procedures, Judge Henderson’s remaining cases have been reassigned to other judges. Judge Henderson may be contacted through the Court’s Media Liaison