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60 minutes, 2005, Producer/Director: Abby Ginzberg Writer/Editor: Rick Goldsmith Narrator: Carl Lumbly An online FACILITATOR GUIDE is available for this title.
ABOUT THE FILM
Award-winner! American Bar Association 2006 Silver Gavel Award 2006 CINE Golden Eagle Award Berlin Black International Cinema Honors
Few judges provoke the ire of conservatives more than Thelton Henderson, Senior Judge of the Federal District Court of Northern California. His career in many ways parallels the larger historic arc of the Civil Rights movement and the changing vision of government - from Jim Crow laws to Civil Rights victories and back again with recent attacks on affirmative action. Similarly reflected are the changes and conflicts in judicial philosophy during those 40 years. Henderson’s decisions on affirmative action, environmental protection and prison reform - and the furors that surrounded them - serve as a prism on these changes and what they mean for American society.
The son of a domestic worker, Thelton Henderson has spent much of his life as the “first or only” African American in his field. He became the first Black attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, the first Black member of a prestigious California law firm and, in 1980, only the second African American ever appointed to the Federal District bench in Northern California.
Henderson was recruited from Boalt Law School in 1962 to diversify the all-white Justice Department team monitoring the Civil Rights struggle. He was on the scene as James Meredith braved venomous mobs to integrate Ol’ Miss, when Medgar Evers was assassinated and when four little girls were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. In his role at the Justice Department, Henderson embodied the tension described by Andrew Young as being an “arm of the law in a sometimes lawless society.” As a "neutral" federal observer he performed a precarious balancing act, between being "a just-the-facts Joe Friday and hurling his body into the fray of injustice." Decades later, Henderson brought these life experiences with him to the bench.
When a state proposition outlawed affirmative action in California universities in 1996, threatening the gains won at such great cost during the ‘60s, Judge Henderson ruled the proposition unconstitutional. Despite his attention to impartiality and his reliance on sound legal judgment, his decision unleashed torrents of criticism that he was a "judicial activist," his impeachment was called for on the floor of Congress and his decision was overturned on appeal. But his other landmark decisions, including protection of dolphins from deadly tuna nets, were upheld. At age 71, when most judges are enjoying retirement, Judge Henderson placed California’s notorious prison health system under federal control, and his ruling on prison overcrowding was upheld in 2011 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Our country is divided over the role that judges should play in enforcing the law. Henderson’s rulings, often protecting the constitutional rights of the dispossessed, demand each of us to scrutinize the complex interplay between the law, political power and social justice.
Chapter Listing 1. From Watts to Law school 2. On the Road with Civil Rights 3. From Legal Aid to Stanford Law 4. Arriving at the Federal Court 5. Dolphin Protection Case 6. Fighting for Affirmative Action 7. Prison Reform at Pelican Bay
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"Fierce battles rage around judicial nominations to our nation’s highest courts, raising important questions about individual judicial philosophy and even the role of the judiciary in civil society. Through the inspiring example of a luminous biography, Soul of Justice demands that each of us consider anew the tensions between securing the rights of society’s dispossessed and fidelity to judicial impartiality and the rule of law. A must view film!"
Christopher Edley, Jr., Dean and Professor, Boalt Hall School of Law, U.C .Berkeley
"The intricate relationship between Black citizenship and American legal history is dynamic, fraught and ever-changing. We dare not under-estimate the importance of our courts in the still-unfolding
fight for racial equity. Thelton Henderson's appointment to the federal bench in 1980 placed him at the forefront of many of the most important issues of our time--affirmative action, prison reform and
environmental regulation. His story and this film provide an indispensable chapter in any study of American jurisprudence."
Shauna Marshall, Academic Dean, Hastings College of Law
"Many stories have been written about Henderson's journey from a young government lawyer to a respected and sometimes controversial judge. Now, this powerful documentary provides a vivid perspective."
Harriet Chiang, San Francisco Chronicle
"There are so few worthy heroes. I hope young people will get a chance to see this (film) and realize that there are people who lived up to their commitment and their consciences."
U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, San Francisco
"It’s important for this story to be told. In many ways, it’s a history of the Civil Rights Movement. This is an uplifting story for our country and for affirmative action."
Barbara Babcock, Stanford University School of Law