Warren J. Ferguson, Who Declared That N.B.A. Rule Violated Antitrust Laws, Dies at 87
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: July 9, 2008
Warren J. Ferguson, a federal judge whose rulings cleared the way for college undergraduates to jump to the
National Basketball Association and movie lovers to record television movies and other programs and watch them at home, died on June 25 in Fullerton, Calif. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by David Madden, a spokesman for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, to which Judge Ferguson was appointed after his nomination by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He was an active judge on the court until 1986, when he assumed senior status.
Before being named to the appeals court, Judge Ferguson was an original member of the Federal District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles, which Congress established in 1966. He was nominated for the federal bench by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
It was from the district court bench in 1971 that Judge Ferguson declared the “four-year rule” of the National Basketball Association to be a violation of antitrust laws. The rule, which prohibited teams from signing any player for four years after his high school class had graduated, had been challenged by Spencer Haywood, who had been signed in 1969 by the Denver Rockets of the N.B.A.’s rival league, the American Basketball Association, after his sophomore year at the University of Detroit. The following season, Haywood jumped from Denver to the Seattle Supersonics of the N.B.A., but the league refused to declare him eligible to play.
After Haywood filed an antitrust suit, Judge Ferguson issued a formal order invalidating the four-year rule. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which upheld Haywood’s claim. The ruling made it possible for dozens of precocious athletes, including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, to leave school early and begin earning a living playing basketball.
In 1979, Judge Ferguson decided a three-year-old case in which Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions sued the Sony Corporation to keep it from marketing and selling the Betamax, an early home recording device that the movie companies contended would curtail the value of television reruns and facilitate copyright infringement. In a decision that portended the explosion of home entertainment choices, Judge Ferguson said that recording television programs was lawful under existing copyright law and that it constituted fair use of the recorded material so long as it was confined to private homes and not exploited commercially.
He made other significant decisions as well: In 1971 he defied the attorney general, John Mitchell, ruling that wiretapping without a warrant, even for reasons of national security, was unlawful. In 1976, he chastised the Federal Communications Commission and its chairman, Richard E. Wiley, in deciding that the agency’s urging of the broadcast networks to restrict programs with sexual or violent content to certain hours was tantamount to government censorship.
“When you’re talking about a career, those are the cases you have to mention,” said Judge Stephen Roy Reinhardt, who has served on the Ninth Circuit since 1980, but suggested that those cases did not convey the kind of judge he was.
“The immigration cases, the Social Security cases,” Judge Reinhardt added. “He was concerned about people and about individual rights. He’d have a sense of outrage when he saw people unfairly treated by the justice system.”
Warren John Ferguson was born in Eureka, Nev., on Oct. 31, 1920, and graduated from high school in a class of 10 students. He earned a B.A. at the University of Nevada at Reno and was a master sergeant in the Army during World War II, serving in North Africa and Italy and earning a Bronze Star. He went to law school on the G.I. Bill at the University of Southern California and went into private practice, becoming the city attorney for seven municipalities. His judicial career began in 1959 as a judge of Anaheim-Fullerton Municipal Court. He also served in the Superior Court in Santa Ana, Calif.
Judge Ferguson’s marriage to the former Laura Keyes lasted from 1948 until her death in 2005. A son, Jack, was killed in Vietnam in 1970, and a daughter, Teresa, died of cancer in 2004. His other two children, Peter, of Fullerton, and Faye, of Corona, Calif., survive him, along with four grandchildren.