Over the years, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger's courtroom in Fresno has hosted pitched battles between farmers, fisherman and environmentalists.
Wanger's retiring this week, after ruling on more cases governing California water than any other living judge. The California Report's Central Valley Bureau Chief Sasha Khokha caught up with him in his Fresno chambers.
Sasha Khokha: Judge Oliver Wanger's 7th floor office in Fresno's federal courthouse has a sweeping view. He can look past downtown to farms and foothills, and to the Sierra Nevada Mountains that capture and store California's precious water. It's here that he's puzzled through cases pitting farmers and other water users against those trying to protect endangered fish.
Wanger says it hasn't been easy to live in a city where farming is the lifeblood, after some of his rulings upholding protections for the tiny Delta smelt restricted water pumped to farmers. Other decisions have upset environmentalists.
Judge Oliver Wanger: I can say after 20 years, I don't have many friends, and that's one of the realities of doing this job.
Khokha: Yet lawyers on all sides praise Judge Wanger's fairness, and ethics.
Judge Wanger: The people who come here, with their rights at stake, their property, their liberty, interest is most important.
How would it be if that person leaves thinking, 'the judge didn't listen. The judge didn't care. The judge seems distracted or disinterested.' That just can't be. It's unacceptable.
Khokha: But when he thinks witnesses are making inconsistent statements, Judge Wanger can be blisteringly candid. Recently, he blasted a federal biologist, calling her testimony "false," "outrageous," and "that of a zealot."
Wanger says California's water wars can't be resolved in the courtroom. Judges don't make laws governing the protection of species. And they don't have the technical expertise to decide how much water fish, farms, or cities need, he says. They can only weigh testimony from experts. He's spent years developing a rigorous understanding of the science so he can do just that.
Khokha: You've issued some very complicated decisions in these cases; they're, often hundreds of pages long, they have detailed graphs and charts. How hard will it be for someone else to take on these cases and develop the expertise?
Judge Wanger: I've been in the law for 44 years, I've taught law for 24 years. And I learn every day. It is a daunting task, and it's going to take a lot of reading, it's going to take study.
Khokha: And it looks like no one is likely to be appointed to take the 70 year-old judge's place anytime soon.
Khokha: The court you sit on here -- the Eastern District of California -- covers a vast territory from the Oregon border all the way down south of Bakersfield. It is overburdened; you have one of the highest caseloads in the country.
You could have retired years ago at full pay, but you chose to stay on and I understand that's partly because you're a notorious workaholic. What finally led you to retire?
Judge Wanger: The obligations to my family. I have a son who hopefully will enter college next fall.
Khokha: Wanger explains he's spent 20 years working every night, every weekend, and every holiday, managing some 1,200 cases a year.
Judge Wanger: I took this job for life; I would have stayed for life. But ultimately the problem of the overburden of this district, it is the busiest district in the United States in the hours the judges here have to work.
When I leave, there will be two judges for approximately 4.8 million people that live in this district -- with 1,800 individual cases each. There is no district in the United States with that kind of a workload.
It is unfair, it is simply wrong of Congress to continue to ignore; and they ignore, quite frankly, with vigor.
Khokha: Even though he won't be wearing a robe anymore, there's no guarantee Wanger's life post-retirement will be any less work.
He'll continue to teach at the local law school he helped found, and he'll return to the courtroom, as a trial lawyer.
Judge Wanger: I won't forget the knowledge I've gained, or the perspective.
I will forget that I was a judge. I won't use the title. A judge never is entitled to anything more than the opportunity to serve and hopefully to get it right.
Khokha: Judge Wanger's last day on the bench is Friday. He begins a new job Monday as a partner in a private Fresno law firm.