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Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr.

Posted By CMCP, Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 26, 2015
Untitled Document
Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr.
by Rebecca M. Aragon, Littler Mendelson, P.C. & Yvette D. Roland, Duane Morris LLP

In 2005, after serving a quarter century on the federal bench in the Central District of California, U.S. District Court Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr. assumed senior status. However, those familiar with Judge Hatter’s seemingly boundless energy might not even notice because Judge Hatter continues to be committed to making a difference on and off the bench. "Now I come in at 6:00 a.m.” Judge Hatter reported in an interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel, adding "When I was Chief Judge, I used to come in at 4:30 a.m.” Ironically, despite his hectic pace, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who would characterize Judge Hatter as a "Type-A” personality. "Type-B with an Obsessive Trait focused on breaking down barriers of injustice,” perhaps, yet hardly the driven personality to achieve prestigious status that his resume may suggest.

A resident of Depression-era Chicago, Judge Hatter grew up on the Southside before moving away to Middletown, Connecticut where he earned his B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1954, at the age of 21. From 1955-1956 he served his country honorably as NCO-in-charge of a SCARWAF unit, a hybrid sub-branch of the U.S. military comprised of a fusion of Army and Air Force engineers. He then returned to his native Chicago to study law, earning his J.D. from the University of Chicago and becoming a third-generation-attorney in his family. After serving a one year term as an adjudicator for the Veterans Administration, Judge Hatter entered private practice in Chicago while simultaneously serving as a Cook County Assistant Public Defender.

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Judge Hatter then followed Route 66 to California in 1962 to serve as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, as well as Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, positions he held until 1966. True to form, Judge Hatter then embarked on an energetic career path of advocacy and education, serving in such varied roles as law professor at both USC and Loyola law schools; Chief Counsel for the San Francisco Neighborhood Legal Assistance Foundation, as well as directorships for the Pacific Regional Legal Services Program of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and the Western Center on Law and Poverty in Los Angeles; and assistant to Mayor Tom Bradley in both criminal justice planning and urban development.

Judge Hatter then took the bench in 1977, appointed by then-first-round-Governor Jerry Brown to the Superior Court of California in Los Angeles County.

Having been unjustly arrested several times, while never being charged, Judge Hatter knows what it is like to be the subject of racial profiling. His first "offense” was for apparently being the only African-American participant in a demonstration during his college days in New England. Another offense occurred in segregation-era Southern Illinois, when he had the audacity, as an African-American, to defend the honor of two white women. His record of undeniable fairness on the state bench, in the context of recognizing the hard realities of racial and cultural biases in the U.S. over the past decades, followed him to the federal bench. In December 1979, Judge Hatter was appointed United States District Judge for the Central District of California by President Jimmy Carter.

In 1998, when Hatter was appointed Chief Judge of the Central District of California, the nation’s largest federal district, he became the first African-American to occupy the post. He held that position until 2001 and remains on the federal bench to the present day.

Not one to shy away from controversy when justice is on the line, Judge Hatter distinguished himself as a vocal critic of national sentencing guidelines which imposed a huge disparity in sentencing for powder cocaine and crack cocaine users. In Judge Hatter’s view, addiction is, after all, addiction. Noting the sentencing guideline disparity in sentencing of crack-cocaine users, Judge Hatter rightfully opined that the manufacture of crack-cocaine was impossible unless one first possessed powder-cocaine, intimating that possession of powder-cocaine placed that possessor closer to the greater offender in the drug war, namely, the importer. The Supreme Court subsequently agreed with Judge Hatter’s position that judges should be able to impose sentences less than those dictated by the sentencing guidelines, noting that they unfairly targeted minorities.

Judge Hatter has not shied from bringing action against the U.S. to "make the Constitution work” either. As controversial as it may seem for a federal judge to be a plaintiff against the U.S., Judge Hatter has dared to step forward and address publicly retirement and salary issues that other judges only talk about in private. Notably, Judge Hatter has enjoyed the support of various federal judicial associations in pursuing issues related to salary and retirement issues.

Although Judge Hatter’s resume would make an elitist proud, those close to him know that an elitist, he is not. He is an approachable and "down to earth” jurist who garners praise from those with whom he interacts. From his earliest days on the bench, Judge Hatter has mentored others in advancing their legal and judicial goals to promote justice, especially among historically under-represented groups. However, regardless of "ethnicity” or "color,” his law clerks, externs and many others attest to the tireless guidance provided them by Judge Hatter. Judge Hatter succeeded in becoming the first African-American to break racial barriers in many educational, professional and judicial contexts during his life. That same courageous commitment to diversifying the judiciary and the bar was the impetus that inspired many of his law clerks and externs, including the authors of this biography, to break glass ceilings by becoming among the first attorneys of color in their respective professional arenas. Numerous of Judge Hatter’s law clerks and externs have gone on to become Superior Court judges, partners in prominent law firms, directors and officials of major city agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Commission, and U.S. Attorneys.

With such a full and meaningful life, one might think that Judge Hatter would be ready for some well-deserved leisure time. But don’t try to tell him that--- Judge Hatter turns eighty (80) years young this year and remains energetic and committed to the ongoing fight for justice.

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