The Honorable Terry J. Hatter Jr.
U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, Jr.
Judge David Cunningham III
Assemblyman Mike Davis
Attorney Eulanda L. Matthews
A federal judge for over 30 years, Judge Hatter has blazed a trail that has provided a road map for a generation of legal scholars to follow.
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
Growing up on the Southside of Chicago, Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. knows the rough-and-tumble life of the inner city. So when he rules from the bench, he combines the law with real life experiences to arrive at fair and equal justice, based on reality. He has been a federal judge for the United States District Court for the Central District of California for over 30 years, and is the first African American to serve as Chief Judge of that district (1998-2001). Since 2005, he has assumed senior status.
Speaking with Judge Hatter is like walking through history with a griot in the legal community. As he explained, “In order to take senior status, one has to serve at least 15 years and be 65 (years old), and if you take senior status, it opens up a vacancy for the administration to appoint someone else. I didn’t take senior status when I was first eligible for it. I was chief judge and had just stepped down, and two or three years later, I took senior status. A senior can take whatever he or she wants to do; you can take a full calendar, or do as I do, working my calendar down, as I had about 400 cases when I stepped and helping other judges.”
However, his strong work ethic is matched by his fairness in applying the law equally to all. Judge Hatter’s judicial integrity can best be defined by the way he criticized the national sentincing guidelines. When Assemblyman Mike Davis honored Judge Hatter during a King holiday celebration, he mentioned that in one case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Judge Hatter’s viewpoint that judges can impose sentences below sentencing guidelines, noting that it was ill-conceived and it unfairly targeted minorities.
Before the sentencing guidelines were published, Judge Hatter said, “I told them (the sentencing commission) it was too intricate for one thing; they adopted the Minnesota guidelines – a state that was not as diversed as California and a number of other states. Why don’t you follow what California is doing; it has a three-tier system in the Superior Court,” he said. “The godfather of the guidelines were strange bedfellows: Strom Thurmond and Ted Kennedy, and it was (Justice) Breyer who brought them together.
“What I finally said to the sentencing commision, if that’s what you’re going to do, don’t call them guidelines; just say, it’s the mandatory sentencing scheme. Because if they are guidelines, we’d welcome them,” Judge Hatter implored. “And after 31 years on this bench, I find that sentencing is the toughest thing that I have to do, so I’d welcome guidelines. One reason for the guidelines is to get rid of disparity in sentencing. So sometimes, I went out of the guidelines and hoped that the prosecutors won’t appeal; sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t.”
In commenting on some of the unsavory names he is sometimes called, Judge Hatter said, “I don’t know what I was called, but all I did was try to provide some justice (for others), that’s all. I try to provide equal justice to those who appear before me. In reference to the powder/crack cocaine sentencing disparity, he continued, “the Congress has weakened the statute somewhat and it’s so draconian and I’ve railed against it from the very beginning. Ninety-nine percent of the people in here for crack cocaine is minorities – Black or Brown – and the most telling thing to me is not the disparity, but where it goes. It shouldn’t be a hundred to one no matter which way it goes, but if there’s to be a disparity, it should be the other way: people with powder should get tougher sentences than those with crack, because you can’t have crack unless you have the powder. So when they bring the powder in, that’s when you should be hitting them the hardest.”
As one of several judges involved in a judicial pay dispute, pressing a claim that the Congress of the United States has violated the Constitution’s compensation clause by failing to honor promised salary increases over the years, Judge Hatter was very forthcoming about the matter even though other judges would only speak about it off the record. He said, “Why off the record! A number of years ago, I brought another lawsuit, Hatter v. United States, it had to do with social security. It took a number of years, but we finally prevailed. Congress had put judges under social security without any notification whatsoever. All other federal employees, other than federal judges, were allowed to opt in or opt out. And that’s all we’d asked for: that same right.”
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. According to the record, at the lower appeal a part of the judges’ merits on appeal process was that Congress unconstitutionally discriminated against federal judges when it extended social security taxes to their salaries … though the Court of Federal Claims [correctly] rejected it. The case bounced around for 13 years before it reached the Supreme Court.
“Then I brought a lawsuit about the fact that Congress does not give us COLAs – cost of living allowances – that they give other federal employees,” Judge Hatter went on. “Six of the last 18 years, we have not received a COLA,” Judge Hatter went on. The case was thrown out in October, 2009, but the group of judges are appealing it to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and it may well reach the U.S. Supreme Court. According to Judge Hatter, “Federal judges associations, made up of Article III judges across the country, have (recently) filed amicus briefs,” in support of their position, “and we expect the American Bar Association to do likewise, and hopefully the National Bar Association, and some others.”
In responding to the impression of judges suing the government, Judge Hatter continued, “If that is the only way that we can make the Constitution work, then it has to be done. I don’t like the notion that we have to do that; we’re supposed to be a co-equal branch of the government. Judges in this lawsuit have been appointed by Democrats and Republicans.”
Despite his hectic schedule, Judge Hatter makes time to be involved in activities outside of the court. One of those activities is the “Just-the-Beginning-Foundation (JTBF) which was started by Judge Ann Williams in Chicago to honor Judge Jim Parsons.” Its mission statement is in line with the goals and objectives of Judge Hatter who stated, “Now we are expending to include all federal judges of color.” According to its website, “JTBF is a multiracial, nonprofit organization comprised of lawyers, judges, and other citizens. It is dedicated to developing and nurturing interest in the law among young persons from various ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in the legal profession and supporting their continued advancement. JTBF’s long-term goal is to increase racial diversity in the legal profession and on the bench.”
The essence of Judge Hatter as a jurist and a well-rounded human being can be gleaned from some of the comment of those whom he has guided and mentored.
Andre Birotte Jr., the United States Attorney of the Central District of California, who was sworn in by Judge Hatter, said: “In the legal community, he has been a mentor and a friend to so many lawyers here in Los Angeles. Judge Hatter has an incredible wealth of knowledge, incredible judgment and is a phenomenal human being. He is someone I look to for counseling and guidance throughout my career, and I stand in the line of hundreds of lawyers who feel the same way about him.”
David Cunningham III, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, who clerked for Judge Hatter, commented: “I always consider him my father in the law because I learn so much from him. He is an incredible mentor; he has unlimited patience and he is a great legal mind. Judge Hatter is very committed to justice, equality and inclusiveness. He’s probably the hardest working judge that I’ve ever met because when I clerked with him, we would have our criminal matters during the day – and he was conducting one of the longest criminal trials at that time at the federal courthouse – Judge Hatter would hear bench trials in the evenings. He would come to work before 6:00 a.m. in the morning and would not leave until 10:00 p.m. at night. And he did that every day, happily and with tremendous energy. He’s a great gift to the Central District and to California, worth millions and millions of dollars, given his great legal mind. And he’s a friend.”
Mike Davis, Assemblyman of the 48th District, who honored Judge Hatter, stated: “He is one of America’s outstanding federal judges. He has challenged our country to live up to its creed and commitment, to fairness and justice. His work on the disparity of sentencing, in drug cases involving cocaine, is a clear example of how far we have to go to achieve equity for African Americans and other minorities. Judge Hatter’s work inspires our need to appoint more African Americans and minorities to judicial branches of government both at the state and federal levels.”
Eulanda L. Matthews, partner at Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt, who also clerked for Judge Hatter, described him: “He has the largest heart in the world. He is definitely one who reaches back and make sure that there are other African Americans law students, attorneys and judges in the pipeline. He is also a giving individual … a hard, hard worker… he comes in early and stays late, and that has always been his motto. Judge Hatter would always make time for other people and he’s an excellent role model and mentor. He’s responsible for the legal career of several of our current bench officers (judges). “
Judge Hatter’s work ethic is legendary and those who work with him and for him – especially his fellow jurists and legal clerks – speak highly of his energy and productivity that they observe, and inculcate for themselves, just being around him. He said, “Now I come in at 5:00 a.m.; when I was chief judge, I used to come in at 4:30a.m. I see my work as trying to provide the delicate balance between safety for the community, and rehabilitation, hope and also punishment for those who appear before me. And I try to do that in an even-handed way.”
Judge Hatter recalled an incident with the late solicitor general and judge, Wade H. McCree Jr., who said, “When it comes to being color blind, I don’t intend to be, but I will be fair.”