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Born: May 28, 1935Appointed: July 24, 1979, by President CarterPrevious judicial experience: Sacramento County Superior CourtLaw degree: Columbia Law SchoolThere are few guessing games in Lawrence Karlton’s courtroom.“He doesn’t hide the ball,” said a former clerk of the Eastern District’s chief judge emeritus.The 64-year-old judge, who will take senior status in May, has been known to start a hearing by telling lawyers where their case stands.“It’s very common for him to start an argument saying, ‘Counselor, tell me why I shouldn’t rule against you,’” said Sacramento federal public defender Allison Claire.Claire is quick to add that she’s seen Karlton’s mind changed on many occasions.While his opinions are subject to change, there are other areas where Karlton is less flexible. Lawyers who have known him over the years say appearing before Karlton without a firm grasp of a case and the law is putting yourself in harm’s way.“It can be a bracing experience,” said Brad Seligman, executive director of The Impact Fund in Albany. Seligman was Karlton’s first clerk after the judge took a position on the federal bench in 1979, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter.Then 44 — he graduated from Columbia University School of Law at just 23 — Karlton was part of a swing to the left during the late 1970s in the Eastern District. Just four years after taking the oath he became chief judge, and in 1990 he became the district’s first chief judge emeritus.Karlton has been called liberal. Many of his clerks go on to work in public interest law, and before becoming a judge in the mid-’70s, (he served a four-year stint in Sacramento Superior Court prior to the federal judgeship) Karlton did some pro bono work for the ACLU.Karlton’s rulings over the years bear out his left-leaning credentials. In a 1994 ruling later overturned by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, he tried to hold California in contempt for the way the prison system handles mentally ill patients. He issued a restraining order against a state reduction in welfare benefits in 1997. And Karlton twice overturned the death sentence of convicted killer Steven Ainsworth — first in 1996 (also overturned by the Ninth Circuit) and again last September.“He must be the illegitimate son of Rose Bird,” groused one unnamed prosecutor to The Recorder in December.Seligman defended his mentor: “Karlton takes criminal cases extremely seriously. . . . He loses sleep over [habeas] cases.”But using past opinions to guess how Karlton might rule may be folly. Last year the judge overturned much of Proposition 208, California’s campaign finance reform initiative, which was a liberal cause c�l�bre.While the decision was perhaps unexpected, Karlton stayed true to form. His opinion criticized the defense for presenting expert witnesses who were less than helpful to their case.(The Ninth Circuit has since upheld the ruling, but ordered a retrial on the entire initiative. Karlton has set a summer hearing.)While even ardent supporters say he can be “demanding,” “rigorous,” and even “volatile,” they add that his dedication to the law is above reproach.“You can have a kind of give-and-take intellectual argument [in court] that you can’t have anywhere else,” Seligman said.Indeed, others said that Karlton is known for publishing detailed, lengthy opinions — sometimes with biting footnotes.While Karlton can pummel an unprepared lawyer, a good one quickly earns his admiration.Longtime friend and former law partner Coleman Blease, now a justice on the Third District Court of Appeal, said Karlton gets excited about good arguments.“When he sees good lawyers, he really loves them,” Blease said.

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