Judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit convened in a special session last week to celebrate the life and legacy of a distinguished colleague, the late Senior Circuit Judge Arthur L. Alarcón of Los Angeles.
The first Hispanic to sit on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and a judge of the state and federal courts in California for more than 50 years. Judge Alarcón died of cancer in January at age 89.
Half of the court’s 44 active and senior judges were present for the special session, held June 4, 2015, at the Richard H. Chambers Court of Appeals Building in Pasadena, California. Also in attendance were other federal and state court judges, members of the bar and legal academia, and friends and family of the late jurist.
Speakers included Ninth Circuit Senior Circuit Judge Dorothy W. Nelson of Pasadena; Pepperdine Law School Dean Deanell Tacha, a former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit; California Administrative Law Judge Mary E. Kelly, a former law clerk to Judge Alarcón; and the judge’s eldest son, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Gregory W. Alarcón,
Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas presided over the session and read letters of condolence from U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Judge Alarcón was said to have often described himself as a lifelong student of the law and the human condition. He was remembered as a wise and learned colleague; a teacher and mentor who generously shared his knowledge; a man of deep convictions who inspired others to take a stand on the important issues; and a kind and loving father who instilled strong values and the desire to strive and succeed in his children.
“He was remarkable for his decency, scholarship, warmth and dignity, always accompanied by a gentle laugh. And he was not laughing at anyone; he was laughing to show the joy he found in his work and his life,” wrote Justice Kennedy.
Remarking upon a friendship that dates back to the early 1960s, when both were involved with the California Adult Authority, Senator Feinstein wrote that Judge Alarcón was “the embodiment of the American Dream.” Coming from humble beginnings, he served his country valiantly during World War II, attended law school on the G.I. Bill and embarked on a professional career that led eventually to appointment to the nation’s biggest and busiet federal appellate court.
“Art was a person of deep thought and great integrity. He loved his state and the city of Los Angeles. He had a real love for the law and was committed to justice for all,” Senator Feinstein added.
Judge Nelson noted that Judge Alarcón was a mentor to women judges and recognized the accomplishments of women in the law, while Dean Tacha spoke of her first meeting with Judge Alarcón, recalling being put at ease by his warmth and humor in the robing room prior to an oral argument.
In remembering his father, Judge Gregory Alarcón recalled the many lessons he had learned from him, not least of them an abiding work ethic that kept him actively working on cases even after his diagnosis with cancer in September 2014.
“My father lived life with passion and he worked valiantly for as long as his health would allow him. He had no thought of retiring, ever. He had too much to do that he loved,” Judge Alarcón said of his father.
Judge Alarcón celebrated his 50th year as a judge in 2014. Most of that half-century of judicial service was as a federal appellate judge. Nominated by President Carter, he came onto the Ninth Circuit bench in 1979 and served as an active judge until taking senior status in 1992. He maintained a full caseload for many years thereafter.
Judge Alarcón has the distinction of having sat by designation with the courts of appeal of six other federal circuits.. He also took pride in participating in international judicial exchange programs, working with judges in Chile and Argentina.
Prior to his appointment to the federal bench, Judge Alarcón had served as a judge of the state courts in California for 15 years. Appointed by Governor Jerry Brown, Jr., he served as an associate justice of the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District in Los Angeles from 1978 to 1979. He was appointed to the Los Angeles Superior Court by Governor Edmund Brown, Sr., and served from 1964 to 1978.
Judge Alarcón also worked previously in the administration of the first Governor Brown, serving as a legal advisor and the clemency and extraditions secretary, from 1961 to 1962, and, from 1963 to 1964, as an executive assistant responsible for investigations to assist the governor in deciding whether to commute death sentences received by state prisoners. He also briefly served as chair of the California Adult Authority, the parole board for men.
Over his long career, as a judge and lawyer,has been intimately involved in literally life or death decisions. The knowledge and experience gained over his long career as a judge and lawyer, led Judge Alarcón to seriously question the efficacy of capital punishment. In recent years, he advocated vigorously for reform of the death penalty system. He co-authored a 2011 article in the Loyola Law Review titled “Executing the Will of the Voters?: A Roadmap to Mend or End the California Legislature’s Multi-Billion Dollar Death Penalty Debacle.” He also published “Remedies for California’s Death Row Deadlock,” printed in the University of Southern California Law Review in May 2007.
Born in Los Angeles, Judge Alarcón received his B.A. in political science from the University of Southern California in 1949. He received his LL.B. in 1951 from the USC School of Law, where he was editor of the Law Review. He also received an honorary doctorate in law degree from the Southwestern School of Law in 2007.
Among his civic involvements were service on the boards of directors of such Hispanic groups as Las Familias del Pueblo, Jardin De La Infancia, the Mexican-American Scholarship Foundation Assisting Careers in Law, and the Council of Mexican-American Affairs. He is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the 2014 Judge of the Year Award from the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and the Precursor Para Justicia / Pioneer for Justice Award from the Mexican American Bar Foundation in 2010.
In addition to his son Gregory and daughter-in-law Helen Lemmon Alarcón, survivors include Judge Alarcón’s wife of 35 years, Sandra; another son, Lance Alarcón and his husband, Scott Alarcón; a daughter, Dr. Jan Alarcón; three grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and extended family.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals of cases decided by executive branch agencies and federal trial courts in nine western states, the U.S. Territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The court normally meets monthly in Seattle, San Francisco and Pasadena, California; every other month in Portland, Oregon; three times per year in Honolulu, Hawaii; and twice a year in Anchorage, Alaska.
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