By nature, judges are not glamorous subjects to watch on film. They’re impartial (or supposed to be, at least), always dressed in the same black robe and, at their essence, referees of court proceedings.
Academy Award-winning documentarian Terry Sanders (“A Time Out of War,” “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision”) found a way to take a story of a federal judge and make it not only watchable, but inspiring as well. That documentary is “9th Circuit Cowboy: The Long, Good Fight of Judge Harry Pregerson.” Pregerson wasn’t just any judge with a lifetime appointment, and calling him a man of integrity would be an understatement.
Sanders takes viewers on Pregerson’s journey, from his childhood in the Jewish community of Boyle Heights in the 1920s and 1930s all the way through his 50 years on the federal bench, until his passing in 2017.
Along the way, Pregerson enlists in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he endures the antisemitism that motivates him to be a force of good as an arm of the law. His humanitarianism is exhibited throughout the documentary; one such instance is his commitment to visit the defendants whom he sentenced to prison while they were incarcerated, often checking on the conditions they lived in and their own rehabilitation.
‘My conscience is a product of the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout Oath and the Marine Corps Hymn.’ – Judge Harry Pregerson
A pivotal moment in the documentary stems from Pregerson’s confirmation hearing at the U.S. Senate in 1967. When questioned about the role his conscience would play in his decisions as a federal judge, he answered with the following: “My conscience is a product of the 10 Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout Oath and the Marine Corps Hymn. If I had to follow my conscience or the law, I would follow my conscience.”
Great documentarians don’t do it just for the Oscars — they do it to shine a light on a story. And that’s what director Sanders did here.
“This is an extraordinary man, who every day of his life got out of bed to help people,” said Sanders. “It fits in with the ideas I’ve had over the years as a filmmaker, how people enjoy films about evil and it’s very hard to make a film about a good person. You can make it, but people aren’t that interested.”
The documentary begins at Pregerson’s funeral service. Sanders was the only one to capture on film the eulogies by Pregerson’s children and former colleagues. Sanders himself only met the judge in passing once many years ago, but was moved by his story.
Still making films at the age of 90, Sanders described himself as a “luddite” with technology but clearly isn’t one. Even after over 60 years in show business, he still is active in the editing process, moving various digital clips around in Adobe Premiere on his iMac, and filming some scenes on his iPhone X. He does employ an associate editor who works on the “finer details” that Sanders says he “doesn’t want to learn.”
Sanders’ intent with “9th Circuit Cowboy” is to inspire the next generation of lawyers and judges with Pregerson’s character while administering justice. He said he finds it most gratifying to learn that various law schools like Fordham, UCLA and UC-Davis are screening his documentary to students.
“And the American Bar association liked it,” Sanders said.
It was Pregerson’s fighting for the powerless and looking out for the vulnerable that struck Sanders so much, and even more so after making the documentary.
“The character of the people is as important as their legal philosophies, and for Harry, his character was more important than anything,” Sanders said. “Eventually I’d like every law school to show it.”
“9th Circuit Cowboy” is available on Vimeo On Demand and Amazon Prime.