Federal judge had served in Gov. Reagan’s Cabinet

Times Staff Writer

Spencer M. Williams, a member of Gov. Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet who later led a prolonged fight for cost-of-living increases for fellow federal judges that ultimately led to a Supreme Court decision supporting back pay and raises, has died. He was 85.

Williams died at a Carmichael, Calif., nursing home Jan. 3 from complications stemming from a fall last month outside his home, his family said.

A Republican, he ran for state attorney general in 1966 but lost to Democratic incumbent Thomas Lynch. Williams was appointed secretary of the Human Relations Agency during Reagan’s first term as governor, overseeing such programs as welfare, healthcare and corrections.

In 1971, President Nixon appointed Williams to a federal judgeship in San Francisco. In 31 years on the bench, he heard more than 7,000 cases, his family said.


“He became a judge because he was interested in fairness and equity,” said his son, Pete Williams.

That interest extended to salaries of the federal judiciary that Williams contended were not keeping up with inflation. Relatively low pay could make being a federal judge a temporary career move, he often argued, as judges served for a few years on the bench and then headed back to the better-paying private sector with an upgraded resume.

At first, other judges considered Williams a “rabble-rouser” for speaking out about their salaries, his son said.

Eventually, more than 40 judges joined Williams in suing the federal government in 1976 for denying them cost-of-living raises for several years.


The suit alleged that because of inflation, the income of federal district judges had, in effect, dropped from $40,000 a year to $27,510 a year between 1969 and 1975.

It was the first in a series of lawsuits that ultimately resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1980 that Congress’ recision of judicial pay raises was unconstitutional.

The successful litigation proved a rallying point for judges who in 1982 helped Williams found the Federal Judges Assn., a professional group that looks out for the judges’ interests.

In a statement, association President Sarah Evans Barker praised Williams, who was the group’s first president, for “his prescience and wisdom and his unfailing commitment . . . to the cause of judicial independence.”

The son of a banker, Spencer Mortimer Williams was born Feb. 24, 1922, in Reading, Mass., and grew up on Long Island, N.Y., in a family with six children. After his father was transferred to Southern California in 1939 to oversee studio film-financing, Williams attended UCLA. He played on the basketball team with Jackie Robinson, UCLA confirmed.

Williams graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and married fellow student Kathryn Bramlage in 1943.

He joined the Navy and fought in the Pacific theater during World War II. After the war, he earned a law degree from UC Berkeley in 1948 and went into private practice in San Jose.

During the Korean War, Williams volunteered for active duty with the Navy and did legal work at the Pentagon.


For about 15 years he served as a county counsel in Santa Clara County before becoming the Republican candidate for attorney general in 1966. He again campaigned for the job in 1970, but Evelle Younger, then the Los Angeles County district attorney, won the nomination and was elected to the office.

Williams joked that bringing his six children on the campaign trail had complicated the race.

“We had to develop a number system -- a count-off -- to keep track of the gang,” Williams told The Times in 1966. At least once, the vocal roll call helped reunite the family when a son was left behind at a Riverside gas station.

In addition to his son Pete of Carmichael, Williams’ survivors include his wife of 64 years, Kathryn, also of Carmichael; sons Spencer of Charlotte, N.C., and Clark of Keizer, Ore.; daughters Carol Garvey of Los Angeles and Janice Williams and Diane Quinn, both of Seattle; three brothers; a sister; 15 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Carmichael.

Instead of flowers, the family suggests donations to an organization that Williams started, the Foundation for the Advancement of an Independent Judiciary and the Rule of Law, 111 W. Washington St., Chicago, IL 60602.