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9th Circuit Cowboy - The Long, Good Fight of Judge Harry Pregerson, directed by Terry Sanders
Judge Harry Pregerson sworn in by Vice President Walter Mondale to U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – Photo Credit: Pregerson family. 9th Circuit Cowboy – The Long, Good Fight of Judge Harry Pregerson, directed by Terry Sanders

The new documentary 9th Circuit Cowboy – The Long, Good Fight of Judge Harry Pregerson, directed by Terry Sanders, a two-time Academy Award®-winning director, writer, producer (1995 Best Feature Documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, produced with Freida Lee Mock) and as producer and cinematographer for the 1955 Best Short Subject, A Time Out of War, will be released on Vimeo on Demand and Amazon on Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

To those who loved Harry Pregerson, he was a hero – a tough, tenacious, cantankerous, loveable hero – a proud Marine who took to heart – both on and off the bench – the motto: “Leave no one behind.” To his critics he was a Bleeding Heart Liberal on the Notorious 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – a would be Social Engineer – an Activist who “ruled with his heart instead of his head.” A judge for over 50 years, when he died, still on the bench at 94, it was said: “In the field of law and public interest there are stars – there are superstars – and then, there’s Harry Pregerson.” 9th Circuit Cowboy is the story of Pregerson who, for almost half a century, served on California’s famously liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and was known for placing his personal scruples over what he discounted as abstract legalities.

Growing up in a Jewish household during the Depression in diverse East Los Angeles, Harry enlisted in the Marines in World War II and served in the Pacific. In the bloody Battle for Okinawa, he received a field commission to lieutenant after suffering severe gunshot wounds to his legs. After the war, he went on to become a lawyer, a district court judge and ultimately one of the most admired, and sometimes scorned, appellate judges in the United States — a champion for veterans, the homeless, the poor and the powerless.

Framed by the packed Shrine Auditorium celebration of Harry’s life, and interwoven with rare family photos, remembrances of people whose lives he touched and changed, television news reports, World War II Marine Corps battle footage and spectacular aerial views of Los Angeles, the city he knew and loved, 9th Circuit Cowboy explores Harry’s inexhaustible passion – both on and off the bench – as a “rescue machine” to alleviate human suffering and fight for social justice.

The film plunges viewers into the major challenges of his life, the courageous positions he took and the devastating secret he kept hidden from almost everyone, including:

  • The great injustice he suffered early in life, which haunted him and shaped his passionate advocacy for the underdog.
  • His meeting with the love of his life, the beautiful and brilliant Bernadette Chapkis, to whom he was married for 71 years.
  • His early struggles to make a living as a lawyer — taking any case that came through the door and finding a way for “the little guy” to be represented.
  • Harry’s formidable impact through decisions and consent decrees, and how he used the bench as a bully pulpit for social justice.
  • How Harry, with his skill in bringing people together, was able to defy judicial precedent and halt construction of an interstate expressway, the Century Freeway, for seven years, because it would disproportionately uproot poor people, and how he demanded and succeeded in having the entire project reconceived to mitigate its impact on neighborhood residents and provide housing and job training.
  • Harry’s decisions in connection with the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant, which were transformative for the City of Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Bay, revitalizing marine life in the Bay and winning major environmental awards — decisions for which he was affectionately dubbed, “the Sludge Judge.”
  • His ruling in favor of LGBTQ rights for same-sex marriages.
  • How conservatives railed at him for overturning death sentences and accused him of activism. But Harry said he simply believed many death row inmates had not been given fair trials.
  • Harry’s tireless work every day to establish homeless shelters for veterans and non-veterans and getting major donors and city governments involved.
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