February 20, 2018 - From the February, 2018 issue

Judge Harry Pregerson’s Civic Vision Left Indelible Legacy on L.A. & U.S. Justice System

Judge Harry Pregerson, who was 94 when he passed in late 2017, was able to see the law “not as abstract principles, but in terms of what it meant in people’s lives.” Over more than 50 years on both the Federal District and 9th Circuit Court of Appeals bench, the "Judge", among scores of other accomplishments, shaped LA. Judge Pregerson’s unprecedented response to transportation, affordable & homeless housing, and water infrastructure was exemplified by his decisions on the 105 “Century” Freeway and Hyperion Sewage Treatment plant. The "Judge" also helped catalyze shelters & job training programs for veterans. But his real passions, however, were disability insurance benefits and the absurd intricacies of the Immigration and Nationality Act. It was known that "the less powerful, prestigious and newsworthy the plaintiff or criminal defendant, the more likely that appeal would end up on the desk of a Pregerson clerk to help with a draft.” Below are excerpted memorial service tributes from one of his 150 former law clerks, Hon. Maria Stratton, Superior Court of Los Angeles; his daughter, Dr, Katie Rodan; his son, Hon. Dean Pregerson, Sn Judge U.S. Central District of California; Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti; Doug Riley, Divisional Commander at The Salvation Army; and the Judge’s grandson, Bradley Pregerson, Co-founder of GoodGrow. 

Judge Harry Pregerson

“My conscience is a product of the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout Oath and the Marine Corps Hymn. If I had to follow my conscience or the law, I would follow my conscience.” - Hon. Harry Pregerson

Hon. Maria Stratton: What would Los Angeles be like without the judicial imprimatur Harry Pregerson made on the big civic projects in town—like the Hyperion Treatment Plant and the Century Freeway—and his active participation in creating homeless shelters in his spare time?

H.P. was always on the phone—moving and shaking, wheeling and dealing. He taught us law clerks how to get amazing things done by personal contact. He used to quote Tip O’Neill: “Politics is personal.” We would watch him hatch amazing ideas and move them to fruition through constant calls—cajoling, putting people together, inveigling.

H.P. never met a stranger. If he heard that someone, anyone, needed help, he was on it. He collected over 50 awards for community work, which would be a fulltime job for anyone else. For H.P., it was just his second shift.

H.P. hired female law clerks from the get-go, long before many of his colleagues would even consider it. And if you got pregnant while you were working for him, no problem—just bring the crib in. He may be the only federal judge in the country with a mother-daughter law clerk team: My daughter is now clerking for him.

The Book of Proverbs says, “Without vision, the people perish.” H.P. had amazing vision with civic projects. Look at the Bell Shelter: He took a neglected piece of government property and turned it into the largest homeless shelter in the west.

And he had amazing legal vision. His dissent in Solomon v. United States in 1985 lamented the failure of the court and our government to recognize the importance of a party’s same-sex marriage. In 1998, in U.S. v. Lipman—long before the DACA controversy—he authored a little-known opinion that gave legal recognition to the fact that it is no surprise that children brought to this country illegally by their parents become as American as the rest of us.

His passions were humanity and patriotism. As chair of the Federal Defenders Advisory Committee, he constantly exhorted the defenders to keep government power in check. His passion for protecting the little guy is burned into all of our hearts. Many of us left our clerkships with this in mind: What would Harry do?

When Harry saw a wrong that needed to be righted, he gathered the law clerks and gave us our marching orders: “Find the law and build the right decision.” He said that the law is like going to Builder’s Emporium: Figure out what you want to build, and then use the law as a tool to build it. He believed it was his job as a judge and a patriot to uphold the promise of the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your hungry masses yearning to be free.

 Everything I learned about being a lawyer, I learned from H.P. Everything I learned about being a judge, I learned from H.P. Harry, you are our hero, teacher, counselor, advocate, mentor, and friend. We say thanks for preparing us for the world and for our profession. We promise to spread your vision and to carry the torch for you. We love you. 

Dr. Katie Rodan: On the night my dad passed away, I sat in the office he had worked out of for the past 60 years. This was his inner sanctum, and you could learn a lot about him just studying what was on those shelves.

As I went through his desk, I found hundreds of letters—hand-written notes and cards. If you wrote him any kind of personal note in the past seven decades, it’s in there. He didn’t throw anything away; he wanted to keep everybody close at hand.

On the shelves were lots of books—books on grammar, dictionaries with notes in them, history books, self-improvement books. He always viewed himself as a work in progress.

Lastly, there were lots pictures—mostly pictures of my beautiful mother Bern, whom he absolutely adored, admired, and drew strength from more than anyone else in the world. There were pictures of his buddies, like the late Congressman Jim Corman, who was very dear to him; pictures of guys he served with in the Marines; and pictures of people from the Bell Shelter, the courthouse, or any of the hundreds of charity events that he was schlepping to almost any night of the week.

I think my dad decided early on that he wasn’t going to raise me any differently than he raised my brother Dean. He made sure I felt like a girl who could do anything—who was tough, who had the fortitude to take care of myself and to weather any storm. I didn’t even get in trouble when, in the first grade, I gave Mike Shaw a black eye because he tried to kiss me.

Over dinner, he would tell me what a mediocre student he was, and how the brightest kids in class were always far and away the girls. He’d say, “And what happened to those girls?” Well, they got married out of high school, put their husbands through college and graduate school, raised the kids—and then what? It was too late to start over and have a career.

It bothered him so much that these women never had an opportunity to really live up to their potential. He’d tell me, “That’s why you need to get a good education. You need to be your own boss. You need to make your own money. You need to determine your own destiny—even if you’re lucky enough to marry the man of your dreams.” (I did: my husband of 34 years, Amnon.) His message to me of strength and independence, as a 13-year-old girl—imagine how powerful that was, especially in the ’60s.

My dad never gave me that parental warning of “don’t talk to strangers.” No one was a stranger to my dad. He always felt that if you were open and friendly, you never knew who you were going to meet and how you could change their life, or they yours. To my dad, people fell into two camps: They were either someone he could help, or a potential future resource when he needed help for someone else. After observing him in action, I gave him the nickname of the Rescue Machine.

My dad was famous for the saying, “Happiness is bullshit.” As a kid, I thought he was just a curmudgeon. But as an adult, I understand what he was trying to say: Life isn’t about the pursuit of your own personal happiness. You become a truly happy human being through the satisfaction that comes from helping other people. And he’s right.

He was motivated, every day of his life, by his abiding belief that we have to make this world a better place; we have to leave it in better shape than when we entered it. He has inspired many of us, and me, to follow in his footsteps—to be a rescue machine in whatever capacity we can. His parting words to my mom were, “I’m no longer able to help people.” He knew his work was done, and now it’s time for us to carry on his legacy.

Hon. Dean Pregerson: Dad: We ache, but we rejoice in having known you and celebrating a life such as yours. Was it yours? Surely not yours alone; we’ve come to celebrate our Harry.

The truth is that there was a time, when I was a boy, when I didn’t see as much of Harry as I would’ve liked. I felt sad about that, but I soon realized that Harry was the rescue machine. I was like the kid with a toy on the playground: You learn to share; you learn it’s right to share.

Mom: Everything that Harry has ever done—all the good, the awards, the successes, the projects, and the countless people he lifted up, bringing us all together—would not have happened without the 70-year partnership he had with you, the rescue machine for the rescue machine.

When Harry was working his way through UCLA washing dishes at fraternities and sororities, he decided to run for student body president. Those were different times; antisemitism was not in the shadows. There were restrictive covenants and deeds. Some schools had quotas; private schools had “Jews not allowed” policies. No one who was Jewish had ever been elected student body president at UCLA.

The campaign turned ugly. The other side smeared Harry and his heritage. Harry, in despair, went to see the campus rabbi. “What should I do, rabbi?” he asked. The rabbi said one word—a word that carried Harry through the rest of his life: “Fight.”

Harry, the dishwasher, won by a big landslide.

Jumping forward: It’s May 3, 1945. Okinawa. Harry is hit in both legs by bullets from a machine gun shooting dumdum exploding rounds. He’s lies flat on his back in a small depression of dirt while ordnance flies in both directions. He slows the bleeding by using his belt and clothing as tourniquets. Through that long night alone, he hears: “Marine—tonight you die.”

At dawn, two guys run through hell to get him. They drop him several times, sliding down embankments, trying to escape, trying to stay alive.

Remember that Harry is from East LA and proud of it. His friends were working-class Latinos, Jews, Asians, Italians, Irish—you name it. The guys who saved his life were the Martinez cousins. He didn’t know them, but he knew them. They were just like his buddies from the old neighborhood—the greatest guys in the world.

So when people ask me, “Doesn’t Harry fret when someone uses harsh words against him? Doesn’t Harry fret when, horror of horrors, he is reversed?” the answer is always: Not so much.

About 25 years ago, I was sitting next to Harry at a Yom Kippur service. It was cold outside, and there was a homelessness crisis in LA. Harry pointed to Leviticus 23:22: “When you reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field. Thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger.”

The next day, he got up, rolled up his sleeves, and went to work for the homeless and our vets. He never stopped.

Harry once said during a TV interview, “God puts us here to take care of each other. I really believe that.” So do I, Dad. Thank you for sharing your life with us—for being our Harry.

Mayor Eric Garcetti: I don’t remember a time before Harry Pregerson. In fact, when I was born, he had been a judge for four years already.

When he was born, in 1943 in this town, George Cryer had just been reelected as mayor. It was a decade of growth when L.A.’s population literally doubled, and Jewish immigrants and Latinos were coming to the Eastside. Two years earlier, the Hollywood Bowl had opened, and in the year of his birth, we decided where City Hall should be built. The year he was born, the Hollywood sign was erected. It’s maybe fitting that our greatest symbol came to this city at the moment that our greatest angel was born here.

At a time when so many people strive for what sets them apart, Harry Pregerson was a man who stood for what brings us together. Patrick Kavanagh wrote, “A man is original when he speaks the truth that has always been known to all good men.” By that measure, Harry was indeed an original.

Two people in the desks around me clerked for him: one of my deputy mayors, Nina Hachigian, and my associate counsel, Carlos Singer. It’s like not just a stone, but a giant boulder that was put into this ocean of a world, and whose ripples radiate out in this town and around the globe—because Harry taught each of them, and each of us, and whoever interacted with us, that all judges should be social workers.

We hear the term “activist judge.” That doesn’t really encompass the judge that Harry Pregerson was. He taught us that it’s not just what you do in law with your hands—in the opinions that you write—but what you do with your feet outside the courtroom.

When a freeway going through South Los Angeles was going to uproot low-income families, he stopped it in its tracks. It was the first time in the history of this nation, perhaps, that a judge stopped an infrastructure project out of justice—to make sure that something that was supposed to serve all of us did not leave anyone behind.

The people who came before his bench served as a constant, searing reminder that we don’t serve our titles or our institutions; we are given those by the people who come before us.

If we count our treasure by how we affect the world around us, the lives that we save, and the lives that we transform, Harry Pregerson was a billionaire—the richest of rich men. His drive to help others was transcendent. He was never in it for the attention—for the companionship, maybe, but certainly not for the attention.


We are all connected. It is as if there is a thread through each one of our hearts that Harry stitched and inspired. Let us remember that connection to each other. Let us pick up where Harry left off. Let us remind ourselves there is still a city to build, there are projects to stop, and there are people to house. And that those who are least among us—the voices we don’t always hear—are the ones that we must amplify and raise up. If we do that, we will honor the greatest angel that the City of Angels has known. God bless Judge Harry Pregerson.

Divisional Commander Doug Riley: William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was ill in his late days of life. He wanted to send a message that would encourage people go out and serve others. He decided to send a telegram, which cost by the letter, so he found six letters that represented his message: others.

Judge Harry Pregerson would have been, perhaps, the founder’s best friend. Harry’s last words were: “I no longer have the strength to help people.” The judge thought of others first—to the very end. His faith was one of help to those who needed it most. And the Salvation Army today stands so grateful for his character, for his serving of others throughout his life.

It all started 35 years ago. Harry was watching the news, and the Salvation Army was managing a homeless shelter—a cold winter shelter. It was a very bleak and cold winter, and many of the homeless were dying on the streets. The city announced that the shelter would be closed because there were no more funds left.

The news interviewed a divisional commander—my father, Dave Riley. They asked him, “What are these homeless going to do?” And he said, “They’re probably going to have to go back to sleeping on the streets.”

Well, just about an hour after my father got back to his office, he got a phone call from Harry. And you know that when you get a phone call from Harry, something is going to be done—and it’s probably going to challenge you to do a lot more than you ever thought you were going to do.

The judge asked for about an hour of my dad’s time. He drove him down to Bell—to a supply depot, government land that wasn’t being used—and he said, “What could you do with this?”

That was the beginning of Bell Shelter, 35+ years ago. And today, over 30,000 men and women have gone through that shelter.

But Harry didn’t stop there. He opened up the Westwood Transitional Village, a similar facility for families and veterans. Twenty-thousand folks have gone through there.

But he didn’t stop there. In the late ’80s, Harry helped the Salvation Army put up a shelter for families and individuals suffering from AIDS—unheard of during those times. It still exists today.

But he didn’t stop there. He went on and helped the Salvation Army establish a relationship with the Veterans Administration, and we did programs that housed 365 homeless and offered meals, life skills, addiction treatment, and job training and placement.

See, Judge Pregerson believed this: If any of us simply chose to help someone else, it could and would be done. You just needed to fight for what is right and just. And he knew that the law was one tool for doing that, combined with the spirit of mercy.

Commissioner Hodder tells of his first experience meeting Harry: He was sitting in his courtroom, behind a rickety old table, with a large stack of files piled up next to him. One by one, homeless men and women came forward and stood before Harry with a variety of petty offenses. Harry said, to each one without fail, “You could be more in life. You could do more in life. And if you’ll commit yourself to the Salvation Army program, I won’t throw you in jail.” Many were assigned to the Bell Shelter to go through that program, and it changed their lives.

Please, don’t forget the thousands of people who have been changed because Harry got involved and did something. Thank God for Harry Pregerson.

Bradley Pregerson: When I was eight years old, my grandfather gave me a stone with the inscription: Never, never, ever quit.

Being eight, I didn’t have anything yet to quit from. When I was 10 years old, he bought me the book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Win friends? Influence people? I was just focused on trying to be like Michael Jordan.

As I got older, my grandpa continued to buy me books—autobiographies of Abraham Lincoln, speeches of Winston Churchill, and of course, Strunk’s Elements of Style. One summer, we went through this book cover to cover. He would call me each Sunday and say, without any introduction, “Turn to page 57.”

During one weekend session that I’ll never forget, because it was a particularly beautiful summer day, I asked him if we could skip that day’s session.

“Grandpa,” I said, “It’s a beautiful day. I want to go outside and have fun with the other kids.”

He said, “Brad, let me tell you something.” And—like with Aunt Katie—he said, “Fun is bullshit.”

I’ll never forget that. But it was ironic coming from someone who loved to make people laugh. And even at 12 years old, I knew what he really meant: Don’t waste time. Work every day toward bettering yourself, and strive to be better.

You might think he tortured me. And yes, maybe a little. But to tell you the truth, I loved those sessions, and I cherish every book he gave me—including the boring ones.

Grandpa Harry was a scholar, and he believed that in order to make sense of the world, a person must have a deep understanding of history. I’m grateful he taught this important lesson to me.

It was wonderful he cared so much. It might sound like he put a lot of pressure on me, but that really wasn’t the case. He was the best listener, and always so understanding. All he cared about was effort. “Just try your best,” he would say. “Everything will turn out OK.”

Now, school never came easy for me, and he told me it was hard for him, too. He used to remind me that it wasn’t until he got into law school that he learned the word “obtuse” meant “slow to understand” rather than “near-sightedness.”

Grandma was the brains, he would always say. “You and I just have to march through the mud.”

Often, people who are so dedicated to their work and community leave their families feeling left behind. Not Grandpa Harry. I know all the grandchildren agree that he made us feel loved, and that we were the most important people in his life.

I used to love watching him interact with strangers. In his later years, I went with him to many dinners and charity events, and at those event, he would be seated at a table and a stranger would inevitably approach him and introduce themselves. He would slowly extend his hand. They would shake. And suddenly, the stranger was confronted with a Kung fu grip they could not escape.

The crippling grip continued as pleasantries were exchanged, while the stranger pretended everything was normal. The handshake would continue an unusually long period of time, where the stranger would finally begin to smile or laugh—I’m sure, thinking: This crazy old judge is squeezing the crap out of my hand and won’t let go. Eventually, Grandpa would release his grip, and a conversation—or rather, a history lesson—would ensue.

“Where do you live? Near Downtown? Near Pershing Square? Do you know about General Pershing?”

Soon, contact information was requested and then exchanged. And then the stranger, unknowingly, had enlisted as a member of Grandpa’s army. And I know from experience that this stranger would soon be receiving a late-night phone call—perhaps on a Sunday night, right when they were about to turn on their favorite show or finally sit down for dinner. The phone would ring. They would be thinking: Who would be calling at such an hour? And the thought of letting it go to voicemail was quickly discarded, because, as we all know, you can’t ignore a call from a federal judge.

So the stranger would answer the phone call, and Grandpa would say, “I need your help on something,” or, “I just spoke to so-and-so, and I need you to call him.”

“But it’s late,” the stranger would reply.

“No, he’s expecting your call.”

The stranger had his marching orders, and that was it. They were suddenly, and permanently, swept up into the good fight.

I like what John Quincy Adams said about leadership: “If your actions inspire others to do more, to learn more, to dream more, or become more, you are a leader.” I think this sums up what my grandfather was about. The truth is that all the good deeds he was able to accomplish were not the result of his efforts alone. No, there was an army of people who stood and fought with him—who began as strangers, who were brought in with a Kung fu grip, and who soon became lifelong friends.

But Grandpa wasn’t afraid to take bold action, inspiring others to join him. And they did, because they knew he was fighting the good fight, he was a good man, and he would never, never, ever quit.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.