HON. Lance A. Ito
Superior Court of California County of Los Angeles
By Don Ray
Daily Journal Staff Writer
LOS ANGELES — When Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance A. Ito steps off of his bench, he sees a framed, panoramic photograph on the east wall of his downtown courtroom.
It’s a photo of the place his mother and father reluctantly called home during the early years of World War II. It’s where they met.
Some might mistake the rows of wooden buildings for military barracks, but that doesn’t matter to the judge. He brought the black-and-white photograph into the courtroom primarily for himself.
“It’s there to remind me that there are fundamentals of justice that you cannot ignore,” Ito said.
It’s a picture of the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, one of many such camps where thousands of Japanese immigrants and their children, as well as U.S. citizens of Japanese descent, spent much of the war, surrounded by barbed wire and under the watchful eye of armed military police officers.
The experience of Ito’s parents and the strength of their Japanese culture had a profound influence on Ito, whose fame was not limited to a mere 15 minutes.
In fact, for a decade, a normally fickle public has not forgotten that Lance Ito presided over the murder trial of athlete-turned-actor Orenthal J. Simpson.
“He’s still probably the most recognized judge in America,” Superior Court Judge Jon M. Mayeda said. “I think he is, even now.”
People recognize Ito because he allowed live television cameras to deliver the Simpson trial to millions of households in the United States and beyond. People v. Simpson, BA097211 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed July 22, 1994).
The cameras turned average viewers into armchair prosecutors or defense attorneys, and the cameras became a microscope through which experts and novices alike could critique Ito’s performance.
Some said he played to the camera. Others said he favored the defense. Some said he failed to maintain control of the courtroom.
Through it all, Ito remained silent, true to the same cultural fabric that gave his parents and grandparents emotional strength during their internment.
“It’s called ‘shigata ga nai,’ and it’s a philosophy of life that’s very, very typically Japanese,” Ito said.
“Shigata ga nai” means “it can’t be helped.”
“It’s the deepest form of resignation,” Japanese-American pastoral counselor Cliff Ishigaki said. “It signifies a form of victimization, where life is done without their permission.”
Although some internees protested their incarceration, Ito’s family members were among the majority who silently endured, during and long after their time in the camps, Ito says.
“It was a very tough part of their experience,” he said, “but they decided to not look back on it.”
Although Ito’s ordeal in the spotlight would not be considered “shigata ga nai” — it was his choice to be there — he also has adopted a no-regrets, don’t-look-back attitude.
Today, attorneys describe Ito as a patient judge who makes certain the defendants remain a part of the entire process, even if that means he conducts some business in open court instead of in his chambers.
“He knows the issues,” said Deputy Alternate Public Defender Eleanor Miller, “and he listens to the evidence.”
Deputy District Attorney Alan K. Schneider said Ito not only is comfortable with complex cases and tricky legal issues but also seeks them out.
“I would say that makes him stand out,” Schneider said.
Sixty years ago, Ito’s parents and grandparents had no advocates when the order came for them to leave their homes.
They simply packed up what they could carry and boarded buses that eventually would take them to internment camps far from the coast — far enough, the U.S. government reasoned, that they couldn’t possibly engage in espionage or acts of sabotage on behalf of the enemy, the Japanese Empire.
Four decades later, the U.S. government acknowledged, with words and remuneration, that the internment of the Japanese violated their civil liberties.
Ito, 54, remembers how his parents and grandparents drew on Japanese culture and tradition and chose not to agonize about the situation. They knew there was nothing they could do about it, anyway.
Their experiences as internees and their philosophical responses have influenced his own life, he says.
Following the Simpson trial, publishers and producers cut deals with just about anyone associated with the case, including, but not limited to, prosecutors, defense attorneys and even witnesses.
Ito was not among those who opted to profit from the case. In fact, he has avoided contact with the media.
Because of the civil action that followed the criminal trial, Ito says, he was forbidden from discussing the case. But he was not immune from being solicited. And to accept an offer would have required him to quit his job.
“I could have written a book and made more money doing that in one year than I would make for the remainder of my career,” Ito said.
That would have meant giving up the job he loves, he says, and he wasn’t willing to do that.
There also was that recurring question: “Would I dishonor my family?”
As a sansei, a third-generation Japanese-American, Ito decided early on to carve out his own path. Yet he is typically mindful of the cultural dictates that nearly all sanseis have to face — dictates that emphasize family pride, family honor, integrity and a certain amount of modesty.
When an offer came his way that involved “a substantial amount of money,” Ito felt obliged to discuss it with his father.
“And he said, ‘Your mother and I would be exceptionally embarrassed if you did something like that,’” Ito recalls, “‘because we think that it would be an embarrassment to us if you were seen as profiting as a public servant.’”
Another sansei, attorney Diana H. Nishiura, says she understands the dynamics at play in Ito’s decision to turn down the lucrative offer.
“To profit as a judge would bring disrespect to the community,” said Nishiura, a board member of the Japanese American Bar Association of Greater Los Angeles. “I commend him for the decision he made.”
Ito admits he did not always abide by his father’s wishes. When he was a boy in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, most sansei children attended Japanese school on Saturdays or on weekday afternoons. Ito refused.
“‘Let me see if I understand this right,’” Ito recalled saying to his parents. “‘I go to school all day, and then I gotta go to a school for another two hours? And then, you know, half-day Saturday?’
“I said, ‘I don’t think so!’”
Ito’s parents were proud of him when he was elected student body president and lettered in tennis at John Marshall High School.
But, he says, they weren’t pleased when he chose UCLA over Berkeley, his father’s alma mater, for his undergraduate studies.
It was 1968, soldiers were fighting the war in Vietnam and students, Ito among them, were fighting against it at home.
Ito says he was dressed accordingly: long hair, mustache, Levis and an Army field jacket.
He did make it to Berkeley, he says, to support fellow University of California students in the battle for People’s Park.
Ito remembers the adventure of being chased by the Highway Patrol, he says, and gassed by Alameda sheriff’s deputies.
It wasn’t all fun and protests at UCLA, he says. He took a part-time job with the parking service at the university and worked his way up to a key position.
“I was in charge of student appeals in my senior year,” he said, “so if you got turned down for a parking space or you did not like your assignment, I was the one you had to talk to.
“I considered myself to be the most important and influential person on the UCLA campus.”
It was the first time he was ever offered a bribe, he said. He did not accept it.
“That was my introduction to bureaucracy,” he said.
Ito graduated in 1972 with a degree in political science and enrolled at Boalt Hall. His parents were pleased again, but Ito says he chose Berkeley because it was in California, where he knew he eventually wanted to practice, it offered a high-quality education and, most important, it was affordable.
Following his 1975 graduation, Ito went to work for Irsfeld, Irsfeld & Younger in Los Angeles and had his eye on corporate litigation.
After doing some grunt work, Ito got to sit in the second chair in court but quickly realized he might be stuck there for a while.
“When you have a paying client and you’re fighting over a couple of million bucks, they are not going to let somebody inexperienced try the case,” he said.
When Ito accepted an invitation to watch his former classmate, Deputy District Attorney Joy Wiesenfeld, try a case, he was enthralled.
She is now Orange Superior Court Judge Joy Wiesenfeld Markman.
Ito decided to become a deputy district attorney and, after receiving quality courtroom experience, return to private practice.
“The reality is I had a wonderful time,” Ito said. “It was really intoxicating.”
He never went back.
Ito worked in the Hardcore Gang Division and the Organized Crime and Anti-Terrorist Division. He investigated serial murders and then became special assistant to the chief deputy.
Ito says he spent much of his career at the district attorney’s office doing legislative work and writing proposals aimed at changing the criminal laws.
He wrote Penal Code Section 171, he says, which made it a felony to carry a weapon into the courthouse.
Ito is especially proud, he says, of a piece of legislation he wrote that protects animals that also are considered public servants.
“I wrote Penal Code 600, which makes it a felony to harm a police dog or police horse,” Ito said.
He wrote it following incidents at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where people threw rocks and bottles at police horses.
“The only thing we could charge them with was a misdemeanor, maltreatment of animals,” he said.
While Ito was at a murder scene in the Eagle Rock area, he met and took a liking to Los Angeles homicide Detective Margaret A. York. The feelings were mutual, and they married a few months later.
York went on to become a Los Angeles Police Department deputy chief and is now the chief of the Los Angeles County Police. It’s the agency that polices various county facilities, including parks and hospitals.
Ito’s varied assignments and legislative work no doubt played a big part in Republican Gov. George Deukmejian’s decision to appoint the Democrat to a seat on the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1987.
Just two years later, Deukmejian elevated Ito to the Superior Court.
His first assignment was presiding over the master-calendar court in Compton, an exceptionally busy courtroom.
Before Kelvin D. Filer became a judge in Compton, he was one of dozens of lawyers who appeared before Ito in that chaotic courtroom.
“He would preside over all of these matters,” Filer said, “never getting ruffled, maintaining his decorum and patience. He was always courteous to the litigants and attorneys while maintaining a quick wit and healthy sense of humor.
“I learned a lot about judicial demeanor while watching Lance.”
And then came O.J. and a seemingly out-of-control courtroom.
Superior Court Judge Ernest M. Hiroshige recalls how the attorneys on both sides were much more aggressive than he had ever seen.
Sure, attorneys are always out to win, Hiroshige said, but attorneys on both sides in the Simpson case were off the charts.
He says he’s never seen a case where the parties were so out of control.
“I think, as a judge, I would say it was a situation that was tremendously pressure-packed,” Hiroshige said.
Ito had always been a strong advocate of allowing cameras in the courtroom and still is, he said. He had permitted television cameras in the courtroom in 1991 during the Charles Keating savings-and-loan scandal case. It presented few challenges, he says.
“The interesting thing was that the cameras were there for the opening statement and a couple of other things,” Ito said.
But when the trial focused on mountains of financial records, he says, all of the television cameras disappeared.
“Which was what I thought was going to happen in the Simpson trial, once we got into the turgid DNA stuff, which was complicated and boring,” he said.
However, that was not the case. Before long, the satirical Dancing Itos were high-kicking it on late-night television.
The novelty soon wore off, Ito says.
“You have to be there — to be standing at your own door at Halloween and have Judge Ito look-alikes come to your door for trick-or-treat,” Ito said.
“You’ve got to be there where you’re in your own backyard trying to relax from the trial and doing the New York Times’ Sunday crossword puzzle and find yourself as ‘26 across.’ That’s a pretty amazing experience.”
Ito says his favorite commentary was captured by a political cartoonist who drew him sitting at home watching TV. The cartoon depicted Ito desperately searching for something new to watch, only to find coverage of the Simpson trial on every channel.
The caption read, “Judge Ito at home trying to relax after a long day at trial,” he recalled.
Ito says it was all pretty overwhelming at the time, but he’s gotten over it and gotten on with his life.
“I’ve kept my day job and pretty much enjoy what I’m doing,” Ito said.
It’s not uncommon to find Ito sitting on the bench without his robe or even a necktie, while he and the attorneys work out issues such as the wording of jury instructions.
A government code requires judges to wear the robe, Ito says, so he’ll say to the attorneys, “‘You want me to wear the robe, or do you waive it?”
He says most attorneys are happy to waive the robe.
Though he may shy away from some formalities, Ito embraces situations that other judges might want to avoid.
“One of the nice things about Judge Ito’s courtroom,” Schneider said, “is that very few judges are willing to do things that are difficult or complicated — things such as dual juries and complex-issue cases.”
It doesn’t take long for lawyers in Ito’s courtroom to realize that he loves his job — similar to the way a great umpire loves baseball.
“It’s a fascinating job,” Ito said, “because every time I try a case, I get a front-row seat on some pretty amazing human drama.
“The facts are always different, the players are always different, and you add the wild card of the 12 people sitting in the jury box. It’s just a fascinating experience.”
When Ito is not presiding over murder and attempted-murder trials, he is actively working to improve the judicial system, even if it means drawing on the celebrity status he normally eschews.
He says it comes in handy when he’s in Sacramento to testify or to lobby Assembly members.
“When I walk in and hand my card to a secretary or I call to make an appointment, they at least recognize who I am,” Ito said. “In that regard, it hasn’t been a bad thing.”
He says he is most passionate about improving the quality of and the accessibility to courtroom interpreters. He has worked for 10 years ensuring that interpreters in Superior Court are paid on par with federal district interpreters in the Central District.
He also was instrumental in expanding from eight to 13 the number of languages in which interpreters can be certified.
Ito also is the Vienna Conference compliance coordinator for Los Angeles County. As part of that assignment, he trains judicial officers to look for defendants who appear in their courtrooms who cannot speak English. It’s a telltale sign they may not be U.S. citizens.
Under the terms of the Vienna Conference, foreign nationals who are charged with, or even accused of, a crime have the right to consult with a consular official from their respective countries.
In his off time, Ito enjoys restoring his and York’s 100-year-old Pasadena house and spending time with his wife’s six grandchildren and her multitude of rescued pets.
Indeed, he says, there is life after O.J.