Stanley Weigel; Longtime Federal Judge
Stanley Weigel, an irascible liberal whose three decades as a federal judge in San Francisco brought major rulings on school desegregation and the rights of prisoners and the elderly, died Wednesday at his home in the Russian Hill section of the city. He was 93.
After his appointment to the federal bench in 1962, he built a reputation as an old-style constitutional liberal who often was hot-tempered in court when faced with an ill-prepared attorney. His rulings were rarely reversed and reflected his fundamental belief in fairness and compassion for society’s underdogs.
Weigel garnered attention as a lawyer when he agreed to defend 39 University of California professors who had refused to sign anti-communist loyalty oaths during the Red-baiting era of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Their cases had been rejected by most of the downtown lawyers in San Francisco. But Weigel, a registered Republican who defended blue-chip firms in antitrust suits, scored a victory in what became a liberal cause celebre, winning reinstatement for all the professors.
“That case was typical of his absolute fearlessness,” said U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Fletcher, who served as Weigel’s clerk in the 1970s. “If the clients were in the right, that was all he needed to know.”
Through the UC loyalty case, Weigel became a friend of Pierre Salinger, the Bay Area journalist who later became President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary. Salinger introduced Weigel to Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, who recommended judicial candidates to the president.
Weigel, a Stanford Law School graduate who was born in Helena, Mont., loved to tell this story about how his judgeship was secured:
"[Robert] Kennedy was wearing a turtleneck sweater and had a football and threw it at me as I walked in the door, and I caught it,” he told an interviewer in 1995. “That’s how I became a federal judge.”
He developed a reputation as a staunch advocate for the underdog, a characterization that the often-cantankerous jurist probably would not have disputed. “On social issues,” he said a few years ago, “I’m a liberal.”
Weigel made many hugely unpopular rulings.
In 1970 he blocked a massive redevelopment project in San Francisco that would have forced the eviction of elderly residents. The Yerba Buena development, which would replace low-income apartments with hotels and tourist attractions, was held up for years until the elderly residents were provided alternative housing.
In 1971, during a period of racial unrest around the country, Weigel ordered busing to desegregate San Francisco schools. At that time the city was the most populous in the country to use busing to achieve desegregation.
In 1984, he ordered reforms at two of California’s maximum-security prisons, placing Folsom and San Quentin under a permanent injunction to remedy conditions he described as so cramped, filthy and hazardous that they constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Among the improvements he ordered was a halt to the practice of confining two dangerous prisoners to a cell “the size of a dog kennel.” His ruling helped set a standard for prison supervision that remained effective until the early 1990s.
Weigel was still hearing cases two years ago. At the time, he was considered the oldest District Court judge to maintain an ample civil and criminal caseload that included presiding over trials.
Before he retired, many members of the San Francisco bar grumbled that he was no longer capable of running long, complex trials and complained that his habit of berating lawyers, litigants and sometimes jurors was getting out of hand.
But Weigel, although sensitive to the complaints, told the Recorder, a San Francisco-based legal newspaper, in 1995 that he was still equal to the demands of the federal bench.
“If I didn’t feel I was able to continue, I’d get the hell out,” he said. “But I expect to die with my boots on. I think I have the best job in the world.”
He continued to hear cases until he was 91, when his frail health finally forced him to retire completely. He is survived by his wife, Anne; daughter Susan Pasternak of Cambridge, Mass.; and four grandchildren.