Federal Judge Thelton Henderson recently announced, at the age of 83, that he was retiring from the bench. Since the late 1980’s, Judge Henderson repeatedly ruled in favor of dolphins in a series of landmark cases involving the US Dolphin Safe tuna statutes that were brought before him by Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project.
As a government investigator in the early 1960’s in the South, Henderson came face to face with the brutality and dangers of Jim Crow segregation. During this period, he famously loaned his government-issued car to Martin Luther King Jr., and was fired for it.
In 1980, Henderson was appointed to the federal bench in California by President Jimmy Carter.
The International Marine Mammal Project began filing cases against the federal government’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of Commerce for the failure to enforce provisions of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. Judge Henderson several times ruled in our favor on these precedent-setting cases, writing important court decisions that were later upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Tens of thousands of dolphins have benefited from these federal laws designed to curb the drowning of dolphins in tuna nets. Judge Henderson insisted that the federal government enforce these laws for dolphins.
International Marine Mammal Project attorneys repeatedly brought cases to his attention, and Judge Henderson obliged by taking up the cases as related to the earlier cases on dolphins that he had ruled on. It is safe to say that the tremendous decline in dolphin deaths (from 80,000 to 100,000 a year in the late 1980’s to fewer than 1,000 dolphin today) was helped in large part by Judge Henderson’s strong court decisions.
"Judge Henderson leaves a legacy of compassion, wisdom and justice,” says Attorney Josh Floum, Chair of Earth Island’s Legal Committee. “He will be missed on the bench, and we wish him nothing but the best in the years to come"
We asked Judge Henderson if he would like to comment, and he had this to say:
“As I look back on my 37-year career as a federal judge, I remember my ‘dolphin case’ as being the most popular case I have tried.
“For many years after my rulings on the case, I received letters, packages and cards from school children thanking me for saving the dolphins.
“The case was one of those rare instances in which I could see the tangible impact of my rulings and for that, too, it became one of my favorites.”
During his time on the court, Henderson presided over many important cases. Perhaps his most important cases involved reforming the vast California prison system and its medical care of inmates, over-crowded and underfunded by the state. He’s further overseen improvements in Oakland’s police department.
The International Marine Mammal Project wishes Judge Henderson well in his retirement and thanks him for his bold support of upholding dolphin protection laws.