Senior judge on U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, former law school professor

Times Staff Writer

Judge Joseph T. Sneed III, who served for nearly 35 years on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals after a long career in academia, died Saturday in San Francisco. He was 87.

Sneed died in his sleep, said his daughter Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co. The cause of death was not given.

In 1994, Sneed was part of a panel that selected Kenneth Starr as the independent counsel charged with investigating President Clinton’s actions in the Whitewater real estate venture.


On the nation’s largest and busiest appellate court, Sneed ruled on a wide range of cases, many that made headlines.

In 2001, the court ruled that the sentence given to a San Bernardino man, Leandro Andrade, under California’s three-strikes law violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Andrade was sentenced to 50 years for shoplifting videotapes. Sneed dissented, arguing that the ruling contradicted the will of the public who voted for the law.

“A rational basis exists for the state of California to conclude that the interests of society are best served by [Andrade’s] incarceration for a minimum of 50 years,” Sneed said, according to a 2001 San Francisco Chronicle article.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the three-strikes law.

Sneed viewed himself as a fairly conservative voice on a court that had grown increasingly liberal over the years. In his rulings, Sneed said he sought a fair remedy, one that “harmonizes all the notes sounded in the interpretive symphony. Some notes in the symphony, however, should be played very softly, if at all. Those are the notes that sound in distributive justice,” he wrote, according to the Washington Post.

Born July 21, 1920, in Calvert, Texas, Sneed was the son of a cotton farmer and cattle rancher. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Southwestern University in 1941, he served in the Army Air Forces during World War II. In 1944, he married Madelon Juergens.

After his discharge from the Army, Sneed earned a law degree at the University of Texas at Austin in 1947 and taught at the school until 1957. The following year, Sneed earned a doctorate in law at Harvard Law School. In the years that followed, Sneed taught law at Cornell University for five years and at Stanford University for nine years, and served as a dean and professor of law at Duke University School of Law from 1971 until 1973.

In 1973, Sneed served as deputy U.S. attorney general in the Nixon administration during the tumultuous Watergate era. As deputy attorney general, he was involved in the Justice Department’s handling of the Wounded Knee incident in February 1973. The incident began when members of the American Indian Movement and others took over a community in South Dakota to protest actions of the federal government and the tribal government. In the end, two Native Americans were killed and two federal agents were seriously wounded. Sneed later said he was proud of the manner in which the Justice Department handled the months-long crisis.

Later in 1973, President Nixon nominated Sneed to the appellate court. At a gathering in 2003, Sneed -- who was granted senior status on the court in 1987 -- called his years on the bench “an achievement of which I dreamed from the first day I enrolled in law school,” according to an article posted on the Court of Appeals’ website. “It is the time of which I clearly am most proud.”

In addition to Fiorina, Sneed is survived by another daughter, Clara; a son, Joseph T. Sneed IV; and two grandsons, Sam Tyree Berzon and Joseph T. Sneed V. His wife died in 1998.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today at St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Memorial donations may be made to the Judge Joseph T. Sneed Endowed Scholarship Fund at Southwestern University, P.O. Box 770, Georgetown, TX 78627.