Warren Ferguson: 1920 - 2008
Judge on 'maverick' appellate court
Federal jurist ruled in NBA antitrust and VCR copyright cases
July 03, 2008|By Jocelyn Y. Stewart, TRIBUNE NEWSPAPERS: Los Angeles Times
Senior Circuit Court Judge Warren Ferguson, who served nearly 42 years on the federal bench and presided over several cases with broad implications, has died. He was 87.
Mr. Ferguson died June 25 of congestive heart failure in Fullerton, Calif., said his son, Peter Ferguson.
Appointed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Mr. Ferguson was widely regarded as a liberal and independent-minded jurist whose concern that people be treated fairly was paramount.
"It was not a job to him, it was a calling," said Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who served on the 9th Circuit with Mr. Ferguson. "He was a ... very compassionate and passionate man. He was [from] the days of the old-fashioned judges who really cared about human beings and who thought the purpose of law was justice.”
In the early 1970s, Mr. Ferguson heard the case of athlete Spencer Haywood, who sought to sign with the Seattle SuperSonics despite a National Basketball Association rule that prohibited players from signing until four years after high school.
Mr. Ferguson signed a formal order declaring the NBA's four-year college rule illegal because it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits monopolies. The matter made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Haywood's favor and opened the door for non-college graduates to enter the NBA.
In the 1979 case of Universal Studios vs. Sony Corp., Mr. Ferguson ruled that the makers of videocassette recorders were not liable for copyright infringement by people who used the machines to tape television shows.
Mr. Ferguson was one of four judges on the 9th Circuit in the mid-1980s whose cases were overturned by the Supreme Court more often than any other faction of federal appellate judges in the nation. Some saw the 9th Circuit as a "maverick court," bucking a more conservative Supreme Court.
"The West is a maverick region," Mr. Ferguson said in a 1984 article in the Los Angeles Times. "If we're a maverick court, it's because the issues we confront are maverick issues.”
Mr. Ferguson was born in the small, high desert town of Eureka, Nev. He earned a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1942. He served in the Army during World War II and earned a Bronze Star for service in North Africa and Italy.
After the war, he relocated to Los Angeles, earned a law degree from the University of Southern California in 1949 and the next year opened a law practice that lasted for nine years.
He also served as city attorney for seven Southern California cities.
Mr. Ferguson's judicial career began in 1959 when he was appointed a municipal court judge in Anaheim. Two years later, he was named to the Orange County Superior Court. In 1966, Mr. Ferguson was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California by President Lyndon Johnson.
As a federal judge, Mr. Ferguson handed a defeat to government attorneys in a Watergate-related matter when he dismissed a 1976 case against Frank DeMarco, the former tax attorney for President Richard Nixon. Mr. Ferguson indicated that the conduct of the government had deprived DeMarco of a fair trial.
"He had a high respect for the law and especially respected precedent," said William Norris, a former judge who served with Mr. Ferguson on the 9th Circuit for 17 years and is now in private practice. "While he had personal views that could fairly be described as liberal, he would not hesitate to decide a case contrary to the way he would have liked to have decided it.”
Over the years, Mr. Ferguson, who held doctor of law degrees from Western State College of Law and San Fernando Valley College of Law, also taught at several colleges. He was an active judge until 1986, when he took senior status.
In addition to his son, Mr. Ferguson is survived by a daughter, Faye Ferguson, of Corona, and four grandchildren. His wife, Laura Keyes Ferguson, died in 2005. A son, Jack Ferguson, died in Vietnam in 1970, and a daughter, Teresa Ferguson, died in 2001.