Thompson, who lived in San Diego, died at a San Francisco hospital after suddenly taking ill while in the city for 9th Circuit hearings last week.
A lawyer in private practice before President Reagan nominated him to a new seat on the 9th Circuit, Thompson came from a San Diego legal dynasty spanning more than a century. His father was a Superior Court judge and his grandfather started practicing law in the city in 1908. His older brother, Gordon Thompson Jr., is a federal judge for California's Southern District, and his daughter, Carolyn Thompson Kelly, is a lawyer licensed to practice in California and Vermont.
Thompson told the Daily Journal in a 2008 interview that he briefly considered acting as a career while in high school, but the power of family legacy sealed his choice.
"Those were the days when you did what you were exposed to at home. Law was the only thing I really considered," the judge recalled.
At the time of his 1985 appointment to the appeals court, analysts speculated that Reagan chose Thompson because he was thought to have conservative inclinations that could balance the court seen as a liberal bastion after Congress expanded the appellate bench by 10 judges during the administration of President Carter.
But Thompson's rulings hewed to the law rather than to ideology, sometimes surprising court-watchers who expected him to side with conservatives on the appellate panel.
In 1989, Thompson wrote an opinion that established the standard for "deliberate indifference" in police misconduct cases, ruling that an officer placed a woman in danger when he left her alone in a bad neighborhood at 2:30 a.m. after arresting the driver of the car in which she was a passenger for being intoxicated and taking the keys. The woman was raped as she attempted to make her way home.
Thompson also wrote the ruling that reversed a Montana man's death sentence later that year on grounds that his due process rights had been violated by a change in the law allowing consideration of aggravating factors that hadn't been addressed during his trial.
Four years ago, Thompson wrote that the city of Boise, Idaho, had violated the Fair Housing Act and the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment by funding a homeless shelter that admitted only men and conducted religious services at the site.
Colleagues said the judicial system lost an esteemed jurist with Thompson's death.
"On the bench and in deliberations, Judge Thompson was a quiet force of common sense and fairness but never lost his analytical edge and never lost his heart," said Judge M. Margaret McKeown, who also sits in San Diego.
David Renwick Thompson was born in San Diego on Dec. 26, 1930. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees at USC, then returned to his home city to join a series of family law offices where he spent 28 years specializing in business litigation.
Besides his daughter, Thompson is survived by sons Daniel and Adam, and four grandchildren. His wife of 54 years, Arna, died in August.
Funeral services will be Saturday at 1 p.m. at Point Loma Community Presbyterian Church in San Diego.