David W. Williams

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David W. Williams (March 20, 1910 – May 6, 2000) was an American attorney and judge, the first African-American federal judge west of the Mississippi.[1] He is best known for his work in the abolition of restrictive covenants and for overseeing 4,000 criminal cases that stemmed from the 1965 Watts riots.

Early life and career

Williams was born in Atlanta but grew up in Los Angeles. He received an A.B. from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1934 and an LL.B. from the University of Southern California Law School in 1937, and was admitted to the California bar in 1937. He was in private practice in Los Angeles, California, from 1937 to 1955.[2] Williams was a founding member of the John M. Langston Bar Association, a black lawyers' group which was organized in response to the Los Angeles County Bar Association's refusal to admit blacks members.[3]

As a lawyer in the 1940s, he was one of several black attorneys who worked with Thurgood Marshall, then head of the legal defense arm of the NAACP, to fight the restrictive covenants that barred African-Americans and other minorities from residence in many parts of Los Angeles and many other American cities. The covenants were declared unconstitutional in 1948. Williams himself was able to benefit from this decision by purchasing a lot in one of Los Angeles’ most exclusive areas; however, he negotiated this purchase over the telephone for fear that he would not be able to obtain the land if the seller and neighbors realized he was black.[4]

Career as a judge

Williams was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court from 1956, and served there until 1962. He was a judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court from 1962 to 1969.[2] As a judge, Williams developed a reputation as a tough sentencer. Following the 1965 Watts riots, Williams volunteered to preside over about 4,000 of the resulting criminal cases. Taking on these difficult cases in an emotionally charged environment won him the admiration of many colleagues.[3]

A lifelong Republican, he was nominated to the United States District Court for the Central District of California in 1969 by President Richard Nixon. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on June 19, and received his commission on June 20, 1969.[2] He later took senior status in 1981, at the age of 71, but remained an active member of the U.S. district court until his death [4]

Late in his judicial career, Williams took issue with the mandatory sentencing required by California's 1994 "Three Strikes Law." “Some of us judges,” he is quoted as saying, “feel we are made to be like robots who cannot decide for themselves.” Ironically, in 1989 he became the first judge in California and the second in the country to impose a mandatory life sentence under a new federal anti-drug law. It was the first time in 35 years as a judge that Williams had ever given a life sentence without possibility of parole.[5]

Williams died from pneumonia in May, 2000.


Legal offices
Preceded by
Peirson Mitchell Hall
Judge of the United States District Court for the Central District of California
Succeeded by
Edward Rafeedie