SAN DIEGO (CN) — You wouldn’t expect a documentary about a U.S. circuit judge to attract an audience on a Thursday afternoon during an unusual winter rainstorm in Southern California, but Harry Pregerson was not an ordinary judge.
The documentary "9th Circuit Cowboy, the Long Good Fight of Harry Pregerson," screened at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center in San Diego as a part of the San Diego International Jewish Film Festival. It takes viewers through the life, work and philosophy of Ninth Circuit judge Pregerson, who served on the court for 36 years from 1979 to 2015.
In the documentary Pregerson's wife, Bernardine, said his philosophy was based around wanting to do the most to help people, especially the poor and disenfranchised.
The documentary, first released in 2021, is framed around Pregerson’s funeral service and the eulogies and speeches given at the service. From them, we learn more about Pregerson’s life through interviews with friends and family members, audio recordings of Pregerson, some video clips of his public speeches, and some animations that visualize some of the stories told in the documentary.
Pregerson died in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2017 at the age of 94. His last words were “I’m so sorry. I regret so much that I can no longer help anybody,” Bernardine says in the documentary.
Through an audio recording, Pregerson talks about growing up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1920’s and 30’s when the area was a multicultural community of Mexican-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, and American Jews. Pregerson, who was Jewish, talked about the community’s ethos of mutual respect among the different ethnic groups and comradeship that influenced his personal ethos.
From Boyle Heights, Pregerson enlisted in the Marines during World War II. He was sent to Marine Corps Base Quantico for training, where he experienced such intense antisemitism and racism from staff that he developed post-traumatic stress disorder, and promised to one day gain some power and wield it to help people, according to Bernardine.
He was later sent to Okinawa and was badly injured in the Battle of Okinawa.
After working for years as a private attorney, Pregerson joined the Los Angeles Municipal Court, then the Los Angeles County Superior Court. He was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California by President Lyndon Johnson in the late 1960’s. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the Ninth Circuit.
During the nomination hearing, Pregerson was asked what he would do if he had to make a decision that put the law and his conscience in conflict.
“If I had to follow the law or my conscience, I would follow my conscience,” Pregerson answered.
His conscience led him to do things in the courtroom, like presiding over a lawsuit against the construction of a freeway through South LA, issuing a consent decree that considered the needs of the people whose homes and communities were going to be destroyed by the freeway. He sentenced Vietnam War draft evaders to community service rather than prison, as one draft resister interviewed for the film states. Pregerson even allowed the objector to continue working for an underground press that published antiwar, Black Panther Party, and other progressive and radical literature to fulfill his community service requirement.
But the film shows that a lot of Pregerson’s activities took place outside of the courtroom, like his support for housing and services for the unhoused, especially military veterans.
“A remarkable human being,” Ninth Circuit Judge Michael Daly Hawkins said of Pregerson.
Hawkins said that while Pregerson was a lower court judge, he saw the body of a homeless veteran who died on the steps of the courthouse.
Pregerson started the United States Veterans Initiative, or U.S. Vets, which works to house homeless veterans around the country. Hawkins works with the U.S. Vets chapter in Phoenix, Arizona.
“I’m stunned. What a life that man had,” film attendee Herb Adelman said after watching the documentary.
“It was very inspiring,” said Nancy Adelman.
Both Nancy and Herb said they were familiar with the name Harry Pregerson, but not with his life and work. The poster for the film, a photograph of Pregerson with a cowboy hat on, intrigued them enough to come see the documentary.
“More people should be like him,” Herb said.
The documentary will be available to rent on the San Diego International Jewish Film Festival's website on Feb. 27.
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