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Judge William Orrick, a hero to civil rights activists during much of his 28 years on the federal bench and frequently a thorn in the side of government officials, died in his sleep Thursday night. He was 87. The venerable judge’s career put him on some of history’s great stages: the civil rights movement; the Cuban missile crisis; the Patty Hearst trial; the desegregation of San Francisco schools and other dramas. “He was a giant,” said Federal Public Defender Barry Portman. “When he believed something was wrong, he fought tooth and nail to see that it got right.” Orrick, who retired from the bench 18 months ago, will be remembered as one of the more demanding judges in the Northern District. He was famously truculent with lawyers who did not maintain decorum in his courtroom, once throwing brash defense attorney Maureen Kallins “in the bucket” for her outbursts. The gravel-voiced jurist relished the reputation. “When someone comes [into my courtroom] and hasn’t done any work on it, when the other side has worked on it and I’ve worked on it for a long, long time, and he’s out there having done nothing but charge his client these outrageous prices per hour for nothing, I dress him down, and I don’t make any pretense about not doing it,” he said in a 1992 interview. “The result is I get very good argument in my court.” A few years ago he put it another way: “I won’t let anybody mess in my courtroom because they are attacking the fragility of the institution. We have a fragile institution that demands respect in order to survive.” One ex-colleague recalled a gentler side. “He was really a kind-hearted man,” said Judge Vaughn Walker, recalling that Orrick often shared tales about his days in the Johnson and Kennedy administrations. “He told stories exceedingly well. He could be a little testy on the bench but he was never so without a reason.” A Democrat active in the campaigns of Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy and Pat Brown, Orrick joined the Kennedy administration in 1961 to run the civil division of the Justice Department. Before signing on, he had practiced at the firm his father founded, now Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. With the Justice Department, Orrick helped enforce civil rights in the South, and later became head of the antitrust division under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, whom he referred to as “Bob.” He also served a stint in the State Department which coincided with the Cuban missile crisis. Orrick was appointed to the federal bench by President Nixon in 1974. At the time California had two Democratic senators who arranged with the White House to recommend one Democratic appointment for every three Republicans. Two years into his tenure, Orrick was handed the most notorious case of his career: He was asked to sentence Patty Hearst on her armed bank robbery conviction, after the judge who had presided over the trial died. Orrick could have given Hearst probation under the Federal Youth Corrections Act. But instead he sentenced Hearst to seven years in prison, finding roughly the middle ground in the sentencing range. “Although you did not personally shoot any one of the innocent bystanders with your loaded weapon, under the law you are just as guilty as your accomplices who did,” Orrick told the heiress. Although regarded as fiercely independent, Orrick left a history of liberal-oriented decisions in his courtroom. He declared the state’s anti-panhandling law unconstitutional, prompting an outcry among San Francisco officials that their hands would be tied on the politically volatile issue of homelessness. He also found the city in contempt of a prison conditions consent decree because of chronic overcrowding at a county jail. Ignoring pleas that the city was doing all it could given tough financial times, Orrick imposed fines of $300 a day for each inmate housed above the legal limit, and gave the sheriff more authority to release prisoners early. “The time has come for the court to compel compliance with its orders,” he said from the bench. A few years later the city built a new jail and was released from the consent decree. Orrick also helped hammer out consent decrees for the mentally ill housed at Napa State Hospital, for desegregating San Francisco’s schools, and for an affirmative action program in Oakland’s fire department. In 1999 he ruled that San Francisco schools could not use race as a factor in admissions — a decision that surprised most who had followed the two-decade-old case. Orrick’s independent streak was on display in an international prosecution that became known as the goldfish case. Chinese national Wang Zong Xiao was supposed to be the star witness in the first joint U.S.-Chinese law enforcement effort against a heroin smuggling ring. Then Wang requested asylum, saying that Chinese police had tortured him into giving false testimony. Under pressure by the U.S. Department of Justice, the State Department and the Chinese government to return Wang to China, Orrick refused and blasted federal prosecutors and drug agents for “flagrant violations” of Wang’s rights. “Judge Orrick had no illusions that Wang was going to be a model citizen,” said Public Defender Portman, whose office was co-counsel to Wang. “He had no illusions about the impact his actions would have. Nonetheless he protected the person who honored the witness oath in the courtroom.” Orrick was a critic of stiff federal sentencing guidelines, and took senior status in 1985 so that he would not have to enforce them. “I actively dislike the sentencing guidelines,” he once said. “I think they’re unfair. That’s why I don’t try many criminal cases.” When asked what lawyers should know about him, he emphasized his words: “This judge reveres the law and deeply believes that without the federal judiciary, this country would be in terrible shape.” Lawyers, he added, should feel the same.

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