Thursday, June 21, 2012
Kelleher, Nation’s Oldest Federal Judge, Dies at 99
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Flags were lowered to half-staff at the federal courthouse in Los Angeles yesterday following the death of Senior U.S. District Judge Robert J. Kelleher.
Chief Judge Audrey B. Collins said a memorial would be held later for Kelleher, who was 99 and continued hearing cases until just a few years ago. He became the oldest living federal judge after District Judge Wesley E. Brown of the District of Kansas, the oldest judge in the history of the federal courts, died in January at 104.
Kelleher was nominated by President Richard M. Nixon and received his commission on Dec.21, 1970 and assumed senior status on March 5, 1983, his 70th birthday.
A native of New York City, he graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1935 and from Harvard Law School in 1938. After graduating from law school, he began his legal career as a corporate trial attorney in New York City, then served as an associate attorney with the U.S. Department of the Army in Los Angeles from 1941 to 1942.
After serving in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1943 to 1945, he practiced in Santa Monica before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California—Los Angeles and San Diego were in the same district then—in 1948. He practiced in Beverly Hills from 1951 until his appointment to the federal bench.
Kelleher was also closely associated with the sport of tennis, as a player and official, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2000. He won the Canadian mixed doubles championship in 1947 with his wife Gracyn Wheeler Kelleher, who died in 1980, and was the non-playing captain of the triumphant 1963 U.S. Davis Cup team.
He also won several other tournaments, including the National Men’s 45 Hardcourt Championships, where he emerged victorious three times.
He also served as president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, now known as the U.S. Tennis Association, from 1967 to 1968. As the USLTA’s principal delegate to the International Lawn Tennis Federation, he helped create open tennis, greatly expanding the popularity of tennis as a spectator sport by allowing professionals and amateurs to compete in the same tournaments and legitimizing the payment of prize money.
He headed the Southern California Tennis Association in later years.
Kelleher was known for running a formal courtroom, and described himself as one of the court’s “old bulls” in a MetNews interview more than a decade ago.
Among the cases he heard in recent years was a suit against Bill Jones, who was California secretary of state when he threatened to initiate prosecutions against the backers of a “vote swap” site in the 2000 presidential election.
The plaintiffs wanted to have supporters of Al Gore in non-competitive states like California pledge their votes to Ralph Nader in exchange for Nader supporters in competitive states promising to vote for Gore. Jones contended that the plaintiffs were engaged in the crime of buying votes, and they claimed that the threat of prosecution was a First Amendment violation.
Kelleher was reversed twice in the case, the first time for dismissing under the Pullman abstention doctrine, holding that the case involved issues of social policy best left to the political branches of government. On remand, with the request for an injunction moot because the election was over, Kelleher ruled that Jones was entitled to qualified immunity.
The Ninth Circuit agreed, but said the case should not have been dismissed because the plaintiffs were correct on the First Amendment issue and might be entitled to prospective injunctive relief against prosecution in the event they tried to revive the site for a future election.
Collins issued the following statement:
“Today our court has lost a great judge and a dear friend. Judge Kelleher contributed to the life and history of the court...In addition, his institutional memory of events often contributed greatly to the administration of the court. It was a privilege to hear Judge Kelleher recount the history of this court, his experiences during World War II, and how he helped to bring tennis into the modern era. Although Judge Kelleher had been ill for some time, he was a fighter until the end, enjoying life and loving his family and this court.”
Kelleher is survived by his son, Jeffrey Kelleher; daughter, Kathleen King; and grandchildren.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company