H. Lee Sarokin ruled in several high-profile cases during his time as a United States circuit court judge. He freed Rubin “Hurricane” Carter after saying the prosecution was tainted by racism and ruled against the tobacco industry in a civil liability lawsuit.
H. Lee Sarokin’s legacy
Born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, Sarokin earned degrees from Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School in the 1950s before moving into private legal work. He practiced in Newark, New Jersey until 1979, when he was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey by President Jimmy Carter.
Sarokin made headlines in 1985 when he overturned the convictions of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and John Artis, two Black men convicted of killing three white men. Sarokin ruled that the prosecution was fueled by an appeal to racism rather than facts, freeing both men. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn his ruling on appeal.
In 1988, Sarokin made headlines again when he declared that the tobacco industry had engaged in a conspiracy to hide evidence of the harmful effects of its products. The civil case resulted in the first ever cash award in a death-by-smoking suit. However, the ruling was later overturned on appeal. So was his 1991 ruling against a library in Morristown, New Jersey, that had barred homeless people from entry.
After being dragged into political debates between then Senator Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton, Sarokin chose to step down from the bench in 1996 rather than allow his rulings to be used as fodder for political debates. He retired to California, where he continued to write about legal topics until his death.
“If we wish to shield our eyes and noses from the homeless, we should revoke their condition, not their library cards.”—from Sarokin’s 1991 ruling in Kreimer v. Bureau of Police for Morristown
Tributes to H. Lee Sarokin
Full obituary: The New York Times