William Gray, Judge Who Oversaw Jail Reforms, Dies at 79


Retired U.S. District Judge William P. Gray, a genial and influential jurist who gained attention on a case involving the Long Beach Naval Shipyard and went on to oversee Orange County’s jail overcrowding crisis, died late Monday at his home in Pasadena. He was 79 and was suffering from a malignant brain tumor.

Gray, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1966, won acclaim for his legal scholarship, his devotion to the law and his determination to protect the rights of prisoners. But his family and former associates also remembered him Tuesday for his warmth and his kind touch.

“His motto, which carried back to his days as a Cub Scout leader, was, ‘Do your best,’ ” said Gray’s son, Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray. “He would have those Cub Scouts, including me, yelling that until they were red in the face. But that was his motto too, and he really lived by it.”


Judge Warren J. Ferguson of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, one of Gray’s closest friends and his longtime golf partner, described Gray as “a magnificent person and a wonderful judge.”

“You get to know a person very well when you play golf with him every day, and he was a genuinely kind and patient man,” he said.

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Glendale, Gray graduated from UCLA in 1934 and went on to receive a law degree from Harvard University. After serving in the Army, he returned to private practice, establishing an office in Los Angeles two days after World War II ended. He built a firm that grew to more than a dozen lawyers.

In 1958, Gray was asked to serve as a special counsel advising the U.S. attorney general about oil company operations near the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. His work eventually resulted in lawsuits against all of the oil companies operating near the shipyard and the $18-million settlement forced them to pump water back into the oil wells to stop the shipyard from sinking.

The case brought Gray headlines and won him the admiration of officials in the Justice Department. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the federal bench, an unusual move given that Gray was a lifelong Republican.

During his tenure on the bench, Gray ruled in hundreds of cases, but none more notable than the jail overcrowding issues in Los Angeles and Orange counties. He consistently intervened to protect prisoners’ rights, often chastising the local governments for inhumane conditions within their jail systems.


“He took two of the largest jail cases in the country, and he wrote published opinions in both cases,” said Dick Herman, a lawyer who has represented Orange County inmates for years. “And then he stood by them. . . . Bill Gray always believed that his talents and his office should be used for the good of society.”

Still, Gray had his critics. Some conservatives faulted him for imposing light sentences, and some Orange County officials grumbled that he had been unduly harsh in his jail overcrowding rulings.

“He was always a gentleman and extremely professional with us,” said Sheriff Brad Gates. “I just wish we’d gotten a little more leeway in the jails. I think he was a little bit more liberal than I would have preferred, in terms of inmate rights.”

When Gray took over the Orange County Jail case in 1975, he found prisoners sleeping in crowded cells while others jostled for a place on the floor, in showers or next to toilets. The case took three years, but Gray’s 1978 order required county officials to take an array of steps to improve jail conditions.

In later years, he was not shy about stepping in to enforce that order, on several occasions finding Gates or members of the Board of Supervisors guilty of contempt of court for moving too slowly to alleviate problems in the jails.

The penalties were sometimes stiff: In 1985, he fined the county $50,000 for disobeying his order to protect prisoners’ rights at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana. In 1986, he filed a contempt citation against Gates and warned the county that “inmates have the right to be treated like human beings and the right not to be cramped together like sheep in a pen.”


But the judge won grudging admiration even from the people he ruled against.

“He was a very tough, very fair judge who earned the respect of the entire Board of Supervisors,” Board Chairman Roger R. Stanton said.

Lawrence (Bud) Grossman, a former prison warden who now works as a consultant to the county on jail issues, agreed.

“Even though it might appear that he was on opposite sides with the county, he was very patient and supportive,” Grossman said. “Everything he did was fair. He took some measures that may have seemed harsh at the time, but he really is responsible for many of the changes in the system here.”

Gray retired from the federal bench last year, when the effects of a then-benign brain tumor were making it increasingly difficult for him to communicate. During a hearing last April on Orange County Jail overcrowding, he struggled often to express himself, cringing with evident frustration.

“It just bugs me,” he said during a break in those proceedings. “I’m having a helluva hard time articulating what I want to say to you. And my golf game’s gone to pot.”

Despite the tumor, Gray stuck to his post, touring the Orange County jails in April and hearing another round of legal arguments. Partly that was out of commitment to the task, Gray said, but partly it was out of love for the bench.


“I think a judge enjoys a tremendous sense of mission,” Gray told The Times in announcing his retirement. “We have a lot of problems in our society. The laborers against management, the environmentalists against developers. These problems are going to be resolved one way or another, either by people sitting around a table . . . or by self-help. No society can tolerate people taking violence to resolve their disputes.”

After retiring, Gray turned to volunteer work, devoting much of his time to counseling students at Pasadena’s John Muir High School, which both of his children attended. Gray became a fixture at the school. He joined pep rallies, took piano lessons and helped students find summer jobs.

“He’s like Mr. Chips,” said Alvin Fortune, the school’s principal. “He came to the campus, and the kids just fell in love with him.”

In fact, Gray’s counseling work, which he continued even after his tumor turned malignant, won him such admiration that the school’s new computer learning center will be named for him.

“We were blessed here in getting to know Judge Gray,” said Fortune. “I don’t know of a person who’s meant more to us in my time here.”

Gray is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Polin Gray; two children, James Gray and Robin Gray Frazier, and five grandchildren.


The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the William P. Gray Computer Learning Center at John Muir High School, c/o RX For Reading, 300 S. Grand Ave., 29th Floor, Los Angeles, Calif. 90071.

A memorial service will be Friday at 10:30 a.m. at All-Saints Episcopal Church, 132 North Euclid Ave., Pasadena.

The Life and Times of Judge William P. Gray

Born: March 26, 1912, in Los Angeles

College: Bachelor of arts degree, UCLA, 1934

Law school: Graduated from Harvard, 1939

Family: Married Elizabeth Polin, Nov. 8, 1941; father of two and has five grandchildren

Military service: Lieutenant colonel, Army, 1941-45

Federal appointment: Appointed for life in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson


1958--As special assistant to the U.S. attorney general, Gray pursues the government’s lawsuit against oil companies whose operations had caused the ground beneath the Long Beach Naval Shipyard to sink. Companies agree to help rebuild the shipyard and pay $18 million in damages.

1975--Begins his long involvement with the Orange County Jail system when the American Civil Liberties Union files a class-action suit, claiming that crowding at Central Men’s Jail violates inmates’ constitutional rights.

1978--Finds in favor of inmates. In subsequent rulings he steps in several times to force the county to comply with his orders.

1984--In what Judge Gray calls one of his “proudest moments,” he swears in his son, James P. Gray, to the bench of Orange County Superior Court.


1985--Finds the County Board of Supervisors and Sheriff Brad Gates in contempt of court for their operation of the jails.

1986--Fines Gates another $3,200 for his operations of the Central Men’s Jail.

1989--Hears testimony from an inmate who was locked in a “rubber room” and had to drink water from a hole in the floor that served as a toilet. He chastises Gates, saying that “there’s something basically inhumane and almost medieval about putting a person naked in one of your rubber rooms,” and orders county to modify its use of the rooms.

1990--Has a small, benign tumor removed from his brain.

1991--In April, after a two-day tour of the county’s jail system, hears arguments on a new motion requesting a cap on the housing population at each of the five jails, but issues no ruling. He announces his retirement, effective in May.

Researched by DALLAS M. JACKSON / Los Angeles Times