Image of Honorable Charles Byron Renfrew


NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) Board member Charles Renfrew died on December 14, 2017. Renfrew was a former federal judge and Deputy Attorney General of the United States, as well as a highly regarded corporate in-house and private practice attorney.

“Judge Renfrew was an extraordinary advocate for justice and equality,” said LDF President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. “He served on LDF’s Board for more than 30 years, and never missed an opportunity to offer his time, share his networks, or support and contribute to LDF– especially concerning our scholarship programs. The legal community, the civil rights community, and the San Francisco community will certainly feel the loss of such an involved and compassionate jurist.”

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Judge Renfrew served in the U.S. Navy soon after World War II, and again in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. After his military service, he received an A.B. from Princeton University in 1953, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He received a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School in 1956, where he graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. He began his legal career as an associate at Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro in San Francisco, then the largest law firm on the West Coast, becoming partner in 1965.

Judge Renfrew left private practice in 1971 when President Richard Nixon nominated him for a seat on the federal bench as a U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of California. Judge Renfrew cared deeply about the impact his decisions would have on both victims and offenders. John Keker, friend and founding partner at Keker & Van Nest told’s the Recorder that when Renfrew deliberated over motions to correct or reduce a criminal sentence, “he would make the inmates write him and tell him what was going on and evaluate his sentence. He would visit all the prisons he sent people to and see what it was like. He cared about the criminal justice system.”

Keker added that he would follow up with caseworkers, probation officers and the inmates to make sure they were safe and to hear about their lives.

Judge Renfrew retired from the federal bench in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter appointed him U.S. Deputy Attorney General under Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti. Throughout his tenure there, he vigorously guarded the rule of law and the fair administration of justice.

For example, at the end of the Carter administration, LDF entered a settlement agreement with the government over an employment screening test which, as former LDF President and Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg wrote, “clearly violated EEOC guidelines and kept virtually all minorities out of higher civil service jobs.” The Professional and Administrative Career Examination (PACE) was taken by 200,000 applicants each year, to fill 8,000 civil service jobs.

LDF sued the United States Civil Service Commission over the exam, and the resulting settlement required the government to eliminate “any disproportionately adverse effects” of the test against Black and Hispanic job applicants.

When Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department denounced the settlement at the start of the administration, Renfrew, who was still serving as Deputy Attorney General as a holdover from the Carter administration, was one of the senior Justice Department officials involved in discussions regarding the settlement, which was eventually allowed to stand.

After his service as U.S. Deputy Attorney General, Judge Renfrew returned to California as vice president and general counsel for the Chevron Corporation – the company’s top corporate legal officer – a position he held until 1993. There, he oversaw Chevron’s acquisition and merger with Gulf Oil, which was the largest merger in U.S. history at that time.

In 1997, at the ripe age of 70, Renfrew left Chevron to start his own law practice, which specialized in arbitrations, mediations and internal corporate investigations. 

LDF Board Membership

Judge Renfrew was a committed advocate for racial equality and equal justice under the law. Elected to LDF’s Board of Directors in 1982, he remained an active Board member for more than three decades.

As an LDF Board member, he established and chaired the Committee of the Bar, which aimed at recruiting a network of attorneys, who would raise money to benefit LDF’s Earl Warren Legal Training Program – a program that grants scholarships to promising law students, and still thrives today. In a three-year campaign, Judge Renfrew recruited more than 100 lawyers throughout the country to help raise $170,000 to support the scholarship program, which in years prior had seen dwindling support.

In addition to leading LDF’s Committee of the Bar, Judge Renfrew was also co-chairman of LDF’s Northern California Committee. He was elected Senior Director in 1997, and served on the Board in this capacity until his passing.

In a 2004 letter to then-LDF President and Director-Counsel Elaine Jones, Judge Renfrew lauded LDF’s victory in the landmark civil rights case, Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the affirmative action admissions policy at his alma mater, the University of Michigan Law School.

Over the years, Jones also had plenty of reasons to applaud Judge Renfrew, including as she said in 2002, for helping “LDF acquire definition and scope.” 

 “Charlie Renfrew was an LDF supporter and contributor to LDF for more than 40 years,” said Jones. “He raised money for LDF on the west coast, coached us on fundraising pitches regarding the west coast and hosted numerous events at which he personally gave the “pitch” for LDF. He served for a long period on the LDF Board, and believed in us and our work. He understood the issues, delighted in our victories and encouraged us in our defeats. Longtime donors and supporters like Judge Renfrew make LDF possible. We shall always be grateful to him.”

A memorial service will be held at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in San Francisco on January 6, 2018. In a show of immense graciousness to LDF and its causes, Judge Renfrew’s family, requests that, in lieu of flowers donations be made to LDF.


Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. LDF’s Thurgood Marshall Institute is a multi-disciplinary and collaborative hub within LDF that launches targeted campaigns and undertakes innovative research to shape the civil rights narrative. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.