U.S. District Judge Willis W. Ritter of Utah, one of the most controversial jurists ever to sit on the federal bench, died Saturday night in a Salt Lake City hospital. He was 79.
Judge Ritter had been hospitalized several times in recent years, but had not disclosed the nature of his illness.It was reported recently that he was suffering from cancer.
Judge Ritter was appointed one of the two federal judges for the U.S. District Court for Utah by President Harry S. Truman in 1949. The appointment itself was controversial and Judge Ritter remained the center of controversy until the end of his life.
Supporters hailed the former law professor as a defender of minority rights. Detractors said he was capricious, biased and unjust. Over the years, there were numerous efforts to oust him.
Last fall, the Justice Department took the unprecedented step of asking the U.S. court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which includes Utah, to bar Judge Ritter from ever again hearing a case involving the federal government. In its pleading, the Justice Department said the Judge had "destroyed public confidence in (his) ability to administer justice."
The State of Utah filed a similar motion with the same court asking that he be barred from hearing cases involving Utah. Both petitions were still under advisment at the time of Judge Ritter's death.
While the Justice Department and the State of Utah were moving through the courts, both houses of Congress passed a bill that would have added a third federal judge to the U.S. District Court in Utah.
The effect of this legislation, which had not become law by the time the Judge died, would have been to strip Judge Ritter of the benefit of a "grandfather" clause in a federal law that permitted him to continue sitting as chief judge of his court past the age of 70.
Judge Ritter wrote to the House Judiciary Committee that the proposed law had been prompted by "malice, Mormanism and McCarthyNixon dirty tricks. . . by the extreme rightist elements in the Republican Party."
Judge Ritter once told an interviewer that he planned to remain on the bench until he died.
"The Founders thought it was desirable to give federal judges independence, so they appointed them for life. And it looks like I had some long-lived ancestors."
Judge Ritter once ordered 25 postal workers jailed on the grounds that the creaking of an elevator they were riding was disturbing proceedings in his courtroom. On another occasion, he prohibited the issuing of traffic tickets in Salt Lake City for 10 days with the result that the traffic situation became chaotic.
In January, 1977, he ordered a last-minute stay in the execution of Gary Gilmore, the first person to undergo the death penalty in the United States in more than a decade. The U.S. Court of Appeals overruled him.
Judge Ritter's reversal rate in appeals courts was high. According to his own account in an affadavit filed in a U.S. Supreme Court case, he was reversed in 58 percent of the civil cases he decided and by an even higher rate in criminal cases.
Judge Ritter's survivors include his wife, Rita, two sons, two daughters, and 12 grandchildren.