H. Lee Sarokin, who as a federal judge in New Jersey overturned the triple murder conviction of famed boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, overturned a public library ban on a homeless man and angered cigarette companies who claimed to having shown prejudice against them , died Tuesday in the La Jolla section of San Diego, where he and his wife, Margie, were living in retirement. He was 94 years old.
His son Jeff Sarokin said the cause was pulmonary fibrosis.
Judge Sarokin (pronounced SAR-eh-kin) stepped down from the bench in 1996 while sitting on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, where he had served just under two years.
He had gained wide notoriety much earlier, during his 15 years as a US District Court judge in Newark, where he was perhaps best known for his decision in the Carter case.
That case began when three whites were shot and killed in a Paterson, NJ, tavern in 1966. Mr. Carter and an acquaintance, John Artis, both black, were convicted of the murders by an all-white jury. Mr. Carter was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison and Mr. Artis to 15 years to life.
The prosecution had given no reason, and several people had placed the defendants elsewhere at the time of the murders. But they were convicted, largely based on the testimony of two men with long criminal records, one of whom said he saw Mr. Carter and Mr. Artis leave the tavern with guns in hand.
In 1976, the state Supreme Court overturned the convictions after those witnesses recanted their testimony and evidence of prosecutorial misconduct emerged. In a retrial, the prosecution argued that the killings had been revenge for the killing of a black tavern owner, and the witness who had originally placed an armed Mr. Carter at the scene retracted his retraction. Mr. Carter and Mr. Artis were again found guilty.
When state court appeals failed, defense attorneys took the case to federal court in Newark, arguing in Judge Sarokin in 1985 that the convictions should be overturned due to constitutional violations. The judge agreed, finding that prosecutors had based their case on « an appeal to racism rather than reason, to concealment rather than disclosure. »
Judge Sarokin said the prosecution had « fatally infected the trial » by invoking the racial revenge theory without sufficient evidence to support it and that it had improperly withheld information that could have helped the defense. Mr. Carter has been released after nearly two decades in prison. (Mr. Artis had already been paroled.)
Shortly before he died in 2014, Mr. Carter wrote in the New York Daily News that he was « delivered from a living hell by brave Judge H. Lee Sarokin. »
After Mr. Carter’s death, long-retired Judge Sarokin revealed that each year on the anniversary of his sentence, Mr. Carter had phoned him to chat. « His calls touched me deeply, » she told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
In “The Hurricane,” a 1999 film starring Denzel Washington as Mr. Carter, the part of Judge Sarokin was played by Rod Steiger.
In another high-profile case, Judge Sarokin ruled in 1991 that a homeless person could not be barred from the Morristown, NJ library because of his or her odor. He said that while public libraries could enforce regulations governing their patrons, the regulations used by the Morristown library violated human rights because they were too broad.
« The policy does not contain or refer to identifiable standards » of hygiene that are a nuisance to others, he said, and « offers library staff and police excessive discretion in its enforcement. »
He added: « If we wish to protect our eyes and noses from the homeless, we should revoke their status, not their library cards. »
Librarians whose buildings were increasingly being used as shelters by the homeless expressed concern about the ruling. An appeals court overturned this, saying the regulation was valid because « it would be impossible to enumerate all the various factual predicates » of a toilet disorder.
Though brilliant in the courtroom, Judge Sarokin could write harsh and critical decisions. In tobacco-related cases, in which the companies were the subject of lawsuits accusing them of concealing the dangers of smoking, the companies argued that it should have been removed because the language in some of its rulings displayed a pro-plaintiff bias.
In 1992, the tobacco companies managed to get him ousted from a case after he initiated a ruling by stating flatly that among those « who believe that the sickness and death of consumers are an appropriate cost of their own prosperity, » the tobacco industry tobacco” could be the king of cover-up and disinformation.
An appeals court ruled that as a jury decided whether the companies had covered up smoking harms, Judge Sarokin had to resign because he had violated standards on the « appearance of fairness. »
Two years later, when Judge Sarokin was nominated to serve on the same appellate court, he acknowledged in a Senate hearing that his language in that ruling might have been « unduly strong. » He added, « I accept that I was irrepressible at times. »
Long after he retired, he returned to the subject as e-cigarette companies battled oversight from the Food and Drug Administration. « Not much has changed, » he wrote in a letter to the New York Times in 2016.
« I presided over the first tobacco litigation for about 10 years, » he continued. “In my Senate hearing for elevation to the Court of Appeals, I reluctantly admitted that my language may not have been appropriate for a judicial opinion. Now I wish to withdraw that concession and declare that it was not tough enough. »
Haddon Lee Sarokin was born in Perth Amboy, NJ on November 25, 1928, to Samuel and Reebe Sarokin. His father published small local newspapers and a state industrial directory, and his mother worked for newspapers.
He graduated from Dartmouth College and, in 1953, from Harvard Law School. He was an attorney for Union County, NJ, in the 1960s, but was primarily in private practice until, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, he joined the federal courthouse in Newark in 1979.
His nomination to the Court of Appeals in 1994, by President Bill Clinton, had a tough time in the Senate, with Republicans accusing him of being an irresponsible liberal and soft on crime, but ultimately passed . Those criticisms surfaced again in 1996, when Judge Sarokin was among several justices who became campaign fodder for Republicans when Mr. Clinton ran for a second term.
In June, he announced he was stepping down from the bench. « I see my life’s work and reputation being vilified on an almost daily basis, » he said at the time, « and I find myself unable to ignore it. »
He denied speculation by judicial colleagues that his decision was also related to their rejection of what a court administrator called his « extremely unusual » request that he be allowed to move to California, where his children and grandchildren lived. , and to proceed to the Philadelphia courthouse as needed.
Based in the San Diego area, Judge Sarokin became a private mediator and arbitrator and wrote commentary on legal and political matters for his blog and later for HuffPost. He also wrote several plays, staged from a local repertory theatre. which addressed issues of social justice and civil rights.
In addition to his wife and son Jeff, Judge Sarokin leaves behind another son, Jim; a daughter, Abby Mantini; two stepchildren, Ted Schlein and Kathy Schlein; and 11 grandchildren.
In a 1989 interview on the public television program « The Open Mind, » Judge Sarokin told the host, Richard D. Heffner, that when a judge has been called an activist, as conservative critics have often labeled him, « it means that someone is not right. » agreement » with a decision. « If I agree, » he added, « you’re a supporter of the Constitution. »
Remy Tumin contributed to the reporting.