Ito's Fairness Doctrine
How his parents' World War II internment shaped his life in the law
To understand why Judge Lance Ito runs his courtroom in the O.J. Simpson murder trial the way he does, imagine a barren, windswept prairie in northwestern Wyoming a half century ago. Heart Mountain Relocation Camp was there, with its barbed-wire fences, tar-paper barracks and guard towers manned with machine guns. Ito's parents, Jim and Toshi, were there as youngsters among the nearly 11,000 Japanese-Americans rounded up and herded to the internment site during the months after Pearl Harbor.
Lance Ito wasn't born until five years after the war, but as a boy he learned about the camps from his parents. Both were born in California, second-generation Japanese-Americans and U.S. citizens. That didn't stop the U.S. government from confiscating their property and confining them for years because of their national origins. "It wasn't a pretty sight," recalls Bill Ito, the judge's uncle, who was also at Heart Mountain, "those GIs with their rifles pointing at us. But we had gaman [perseverance]--just grin and bear it."
Recent rulings. Last week, Judge Ito made a series of moves that required all the gaman he could muster. First, he denied a request by Simpson's lawyers to throw out as evidence several blood samples collected at the scene of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, as well as at O.J. Simpson's house and on his Ford Bronco. Then he temporarily suspended jury selection after publication of a book by Faye Resnick, a friend of Nicole's who claims that Simpson repeatedly threatened to kill his former wife. The selection process was reopened by week's end.
Finally, the judge denied a defense motion to delay the trial for a year and grant bail to Simpson because of all the incendiary publicity. Ito cited legal precedent repeatedly in his rulings: "A trial court has to be guided by statutes and the case law."
People who know the judge say his strict constructionist rulings are consistent with his upbringing. "The tragic circumstances his parents went through, essentially being imprisoned in their own country, simply increased his sense of fairness," argues Robert Philibosian, a former Los Angeles district attorney who recommended Ito for a judgeship. After his parents' release from the Wyoming camp, they became teachers in Los Angeles. One childhood friend who attended Ivanhoe Elementary School east of Hollywood with Ito remembers him discussing the internment without shame and with steely resolve that he could rise above it. At John Marshall High School, Ito was an honors student and was elected president of one of his classes. In college, he earned money by helping to park cars at a student lot on the UCLA campus before attending law school at the University of California at Berkeley. His father recently told Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese-American newspaper in Los Angeles, that his son's work ethic "comes from my father," who came to America from Kyushu, a southern Japanese island where some of Ito's ancestors were toughly disciplined samurai.
After a couple of years in private practice, Ito joined the L.A. district attorney's office in 1977. The man who recruited him--James Bascue, now a judge--still marvels at Ito as a "complete package, an excellent trial lawyer extraordinarily skilled at writing and research." When Bascue became chief deputy DA in 1981, he brought Ito with him as special assistant. Ito excelled at handling complex and brutal cases, including one featuring a serial killer of up to 34 elderly women. Lt. Sergio Robleto of the Robbery-Homicide Division remembers Ito as a tough taskmaster. "He made us do the hundred things that make a good case--and then the next hundred."