Baseball. It’s a common thread throughout the life of Arizona State University alumnus Judge Lawrence Anderson.
A standout at Brophy Prep in the 1960s, he received a baseball scholarship to the University of San Francisco, where he was the team’s starting catcher.
A spinal cord injury in 1969 left him with paraplegia, ending his baseball career. But his love for the game endured.
“I decided that, because baseball was my passion, and my father was a trial lawyer in Phoenix, that once I had my spinal cord injury and was in a wheelchair, I said, ‘You know what? I can be the umpire in the courtroom,’” said Anderson, a graduate of ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.
And so began a journey that would lead to Anderson serving as the umpire in the federal courtroom in Phoenix.
What he accomplished, both inside and outside the courtroom, led to Anderson being named the 2018 recipient of the Hon. John R. Sticht Disability Achievement Award. He received the award, given annually by the State Bar of Arizona, for his courage, tenacity and everything he has done to improve access for those with disabilities.
But Anderson is reluctant to talk about those things.
“I shy away from publicity,” he said. “I’m just kind of a private guy.”
Indeed he is. Although he blazed a legal trail for disability rights long before the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, most of that work — as much as possible — was done quietly, behind the scenes, without filing a lawsuit.
So perhaps it was not a surprise that the spotlight-averse Anderson did not attend the State Bar luncheon honoring him for the Sticht Award. After all, Anderson is not interested in talking about himself winning the award. But he does want to talk about the pinch hitter who stepped up to the plate to accept his award for him and hit a home run: ASU Law Dean Douglas Sylvester.
The Sticht Award
“I’ve lived in Phoenix my whole life,” Anderson said, “and I’m almost 70 now.”
But Anderson retired from the bench in 2014, and he and his wife, retired Superior Court Judge Aimee Anderson, had always dreamed of living in Coronado, California, the idyllic community across the bay from San Diego. They bought a house in Coronado in January 2016, spent all of 2017 remodeling it to make it more wheelchair-friendly and then, in June of this year, finally made the move.
“Then all of a sudden, there’s this award presentation and I wasn’t going to be in town,” Anderson said, referring to the luncheon in the Phoenix area. “It’s very difficult. I don’t drive anymore, because of my spinal cord injury and how it’s progressed.”
Anderson wanted to be there: He said he was particularly honored by this recognition. He was a colleague of the award’s namesake, a quadriplegic judge who passed away in 2004.
“When I joined the Superior Court in 1990, there were four of us that were in wheelchairs, believe it or not,” Anderson said, recalling that himself, Sticht and fellow Maricopa County Superior Court Judges Mike Ryan and Michael Wilkinson did a public service announcement for the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“So I knew John Sticht, and it’s meaningful to me, because I know how hard it was for him to achieve what he achieved as a quadriplegic,” said Anderson.
It pained him to not be able to attend the award luncheon.
“It’s a very meaningful award, and I didn’t want it disrespected by my absence,” he said.
So he asked around, looking for a stand-in. Finally, he found somebody: Sylvester, who gladly offered to accept the award and give remarks on Anderson’s behalf.
It’s something a friend wouldn’t hesitate to do. But that’s the odd thing.
“You know, I don’t think that I’ve ever really formally met him except to say hi,” said Anderson, who was blown away by Sylvester’s gesture. “He didn’t know me from Adam.”
Although they weren’t close acquaintances, Sylvester did know who Anderson was and what he had accomplished. And as ASU Law’s dean, he was honored to help pay tribute to one of the school’s earliest and most accomplished alums.
Sylvester told the audience at the State Bar luncheon how, as a student, Anderson had worked with ASU Law’s founding dean, Willard Pedrick, to ensure there were no impediments at the school for Anderson and other students with disabilities. How Anderson excelled during his time at ASU Law, both in the classroom and outside, continuing to challenge himself as an athlete. And about the illustrious career Anderson went on to have.
“As a professional, he went to the highest levels of his profession, both as a practitioner and also as a magistrate judge and superior court judge,” Sylvester continued. “And so he inspired people by never letting his disability and his injury get in the way of his professional success.”
Anderson was able to see the speech, which was captured on video. Clearly emotional, he paused as he searched for just the right words to express his gratitude.
“I’m just very grateful to him,” Anderson said. “It means very much to me personally, that he did it voluntarily, with no ulterior motive, other than to honor an ASU alumnus.”
‘There’s more than one way to serve your country’
As a student at the University of San Francisco, Anderson’s dreams included continuing to play baseball — and one day serving in the military.
“I wanted to be an Army Ranger, airborne special (operations) forces,” he said. “And I knew I would be going to Vietnam. I was and still am very patriotic, but at the time, you either felt you were patriotic and when your country called you, you answered the bell, or you were against the war and you protested against the war. And I was one of those that said, ‘You know what? That’s not right. What we are doing over in Vietnam is the right thing to stop communism.’”
But the spinal cord injury, suffered as a passenger in a motor vehicle accident, ended both his baseball career and his dream of fighting in Vietnam. And upon a half-century of reflection, he sees the fateful accident as perhaps a moment of divine intervention.
“You know, fast-forward 50 years, and I’m disappointed, because we were there (in Vietnam) for all the wrong reasons,” he said. “It’s almost as if it was a blessing that I was in my wreck, because I think I probably would’ve come home in a box, because of my aggressive personality. I was real gung-ho, and my family believes that to this day.”
“So, I have a lot of mixed emotions about the Vietnam War,” he continued. “On the one hand, I felt I got cheated and didn’t get to do what I wanted to do. On the other hand, it probably saved my life and allowed me to live a full life. And there’s more than one way to serve your country.”
A year after his accident, he recalls a history professor challenging him to write down what he wanted to be in 25 years. Anderson wrote, “I want to be a federal judge in my home state of Arizona.”
“That was my one and only goal,” he said, “And thank God I was able to attain that when I was appointed to the bench in 1998.”
Working behind the scenes
Anderson was involved in a number of high-profile cases as a federal magistrate judge, featuring the likes of Arizona Rep. Ben Arredondo and civil-rights activist Jarrett Maupin II. And Anderson was the judge at the initial hearing for Jared Loughner, the gunman in a mass shooting near Tucson in 2011 that killed six, including U.S. District Judge John Roll, and wounded 13, including then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
But Anderson never wanted to make headlines. Throughout his legal career, both as a lawyer and a judge, he just wanted to make things right.
As a young lawyer, he encountered accessibility problems at Maricopa County’s East Court Building in Phoenix, which lacked a wheelchair access ramp.
“This was 1978, way before the ADA, so I wrote a letter to Ed Pastor,” said Anderson, referring to the future congressman who was then serving as chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
Anderson explained how difficult it was to get into the building, not only for people with wheelchairs but also for delivery personnel with a dolly or anybody else using wheels. Over the next few months, Anderson negotiated with the board, and a ramp was added. The ramp, which still bears his initials etched in the concrete, is a tangible part of his legacy, and Anderson is proud of it. But he’s just as proud that he was able to get it built without ever having to file a lawsuit.
“I think there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things,” he said. “And there were many instances where I found a barrier that didn’t comply with the ADA. Even before the ADA went into effect in 1990, and some provisions didn’t start until 1992, I went to them and said, ‘You know, look. I know it’s not your intent, but if you lived your life in a wheelchair, you need to have an accessible entrance. You need to have a wider parking stall. You need to have a sign.’ And most of the time, the people knew me and they did the right thing, because it was the right thing to do.”
Litigation was always a last resort. But sometimes it was necessary.
Anderson was an accomplished athlete before his spinal cord injury and continued to challenge himself afterward. He won the heavyweight division of the national wheelchair weightlifting championships in 1974. He explored the Great Barrier Reef as a scuba diver, snow-skied the mountains of Colorado and went white-water rafting in Category 4 rapids.
So there was no better attorney for a wheelchair athlete named Michael Kaminski, who was seeking the right to participate in the annual Fiesta Bowl Marathon. Anderson filed suit in 1979, and the case was eventually settled, with all wheelchair athletes entitled to take part in the race by leaving the start line 15 minutes before the other participants.
Anderson also maintained his passion for baseball, serving as a Little League coach. After several years of doing so, Anderson — who served as the third-base coach — was told he could no longer be on the field, because his wheelchair was a potential hazard.
Anderson contested, citing his ability to maneuver quickly in his wheelchair and the lack of any previous incidents. The standoff escalated, and eventually Little League officials threatened that not only would his team forfeit their games, but the Arcadia Little League charter would be pulled.
And for Anderson, that was a bridge too far.
“I thought that was so unfair, and such bully behavior,” he said. “If they would do this to me as an adult, as a law-trained lawyer and judge, what would they do to somebody who doesn’t have legal training? They’d just intimidate them and get them to back down.”
The father of one of the team’s players was a lawyer and agreed to represent Anderson in the case. But Anderson, who always viewed litigation as a last resort, was especially concerned.
“Here I’m a sitting judge, and this thing might make the papers, and I’m not sure how this is going to look, with a public official suing Little League,” he said. “Well, not only did it make the papers, it was on the front page, and it was on the front page for the next month.”
Although ultimately successful, Anderson remembers being on pins and needles, having no idea how the case might turn out.
“This was the first judicial opinion in the United States on the Americans With Disabilities Act, because it just went into effect right before we filed suit,” he said. “So the timing couldn’t have been better, but there was no precedent.”
He didn’t seek damages. All he wanted was the right to coach his team without hassle, and for his attorney’s fees to be paid.
Anderson was reinstated as the coach, and his team made a storied run to the state championship, falling one game short of a berth in the Little League World Series.
Over two decades later, Anderson proudly recalls his team’s effort and vividly remembers the details of that state championship game.
“It was a very dramatic game, and we had the bases loaded with two outs in one of the later innings, and probably my best athlete was at the plate,” he said. “And their pitcher struck out my batter with the bases loaded on three of the best pitches I’ve ever seen, at any level. Seriously.”
He never wanted to file a lawsuit. He just wanted to coach baseball.
At the awards luncheon, Sylvester highlighted Anderson’s extraordinary ability to get things done for the disability community simply by connecting with people.
“And I thought what was always most extraordinary about him is he did this without suing,” Sylvester said. “Almost every single one of these cases was just appealing to people on their level of fairness. The ADA wasn’t there, they didn’t have to do it, but he appealed to people’s fairness, the real sense of what people needed to get done, and case after case after case that he has made such a difference in, he settled, he found ways for people to get these things done, and I think in those ways, he’s a tremendous inspiration.”
An umpire’s retirement
Anderson loves Phoenix, but it was always his dream to retire to Coronado. It’s a place he fell in love with during family vacation as a child, and where he knew he could enjoy a more temperate climate.
“And there’s just a difference here — it’s almost like you go back in time,” he said. “It’s very quaint. There’s older homes. You have a very low crime rate. The weather is phenomenal. I just felt like I was in the Land of Oz. It was just so different, even in the early ’60s, than it was in Phoenix. And even to this day, it’s still a very special place.”
The area’s accessibility and small-town feel appeals to him.
“The nice thing about Coronado when you’re in a wheelchair and don’t drive is, I can leave my house and I can wheel to the bank, the hardware store, the grocery store, doctor’s offices and hospital are two blocks away,” he said. “Even the ferry, the ferry’s only two blocks away.”
And there’s also baseball.
“We just took the ferry on Sunday and went across to Petco Park and watched the Diamondbacks play the San Diego Padres,” he said.
As he navigates his new home, Anderson remains vigilant about access for the disabled. And as always, he’s focused on solutions, not lawsuits.
His bank, for instance, does not have a door that automatically opens at the push of a button. But as Anderson is quick to point out, the ADA only requires reasonable accommodation.
“They don’t have an ADA door, and a heavy door, when you’re in a chair, is very hard to open,” he said. “But they have personnel at their desk right near the front door. So when they see somebody in a chair, whatever they’re doing, they stop and they open the door for you. To me, that’s a reasonable accommodation.”
The courtroom umpire still calls ’em like he sees ’em.
And his courtroom umpiring days may not be over. The local federal court has inquired about his availability, and he says he’s thinking about lending a hand on a part-time basis.
“It would be fun and interesting to meet new people, put the robe back on again and feel like I’m contributing,” he said.
And that is, ultimately, what he has always wanted to do: contribute to society. While he appreciates the recognition of the Sticht Award, it’s not awards that define success. For that, he turns to Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection
of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of
false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a
little better; whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social
condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This
is the meaning of success."
That may indeed be the definition of success. And it is, without question, the definition of Judge Lawrence Anderson....