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Glendale Jurist Stunned by His Fall From Grace

August 31, 1987|DAVID DeVOSS | Times Staff Writer

Daniel F. Calabro peered owlishly through thick lenses at the neat stack of supportive letters on his desk. He had carefully scissored open the envelopes to preserve the return addresses. Next to the correspondence were newspaper clippings, political cartoons and a few petitions, all arrayed and sorted to size.

"I'm just a bit manic right now," he apologized as he meticulously built his montage. "I'm operating without much sleep." His eyes were red, his face slightly puffy and the vested suit of judicial blue seemed a size too large.

The week, recalled the Glendale Municipal Court commissioner, had started so innocently: "I'd come in early and was arranging my schedule when the clerk brought in a letter from the district attorney. After I read it I thought, 'My, God, this is so terribly wrong.' . . . It was the most horrible moment of my life."

Calabro, 54, had reason to feel numb. He was on the verge of losing his most highly prized yet vulnerable possession: his reputation. Within hours, the obscure jurist, whose entire professional life has been spent within a four-square-block area of central Glendale, would become a national curiosity.

The next day, his six-year tenure on the bench entered a temporary limbo when Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, responding to a complaint, announced that his deputies no longer would prosecute criminal cases in Calabro's court. The NAACP called for his immediate removal. Then the county Human Rights Commission demanded an investigation.

The uproar stemmed from a day in court last June when Calabro voiced frustration at having to hear "another nigger case" involving a white man's assault on a black. "Another one where this nigger business came up?" he said, according to the court transcript. "We're not past that yet? I thought we were all past that?"

Although Calabro's abject apology later in the week brought a respite from criticism by black community leaders, Reiner has been less forgiving. Use of a racial epithet, no matter how innocent the context, diminishes the effectiveness of a judicial officer and brings the entire legal system into question, he argues, and his office late in the week countered with new charges that Calabro in the past has mimicked Asian accents in court.

To Calabro, it has been a perplexing fall from grace. "Imagine you live 50 years in one community," he sighed. "You get an education, raise two children, belong to the Baptist church. You have an image and a position. Then one day somebody arbitrarily decides to put an end to your life by calling you a bigot and racist."

Calabro's office--his chambers as a Municipal Court commissioner--show no evidence of influence or political clout. No honorary degrees or autographed pictures of embracing politicians decorate the walls. A black judicial robe hangs like a totem in one corner, but the view from his office window is of a parking lot.

Until last week, he had a reputation among court employees not for delivering racist remarks from the bench but for his uncompromising drive to hear an average of 100 cases a day. Only grudgingly, they complained, would he call even a five-minute break as he tried push through as many cases as he could.

But he was generous with his $69,000 annual salary, the original soft touch when confronted with raffle tickets. And on one occasion he bought a prom dress for one of the court's student workers who needed a new frock.

When the controversy over his remarks arose, 31 of the court's 33 employees signed a petition insisting that the comments signified only his exasperation with the city's climate of racial intolerance. "It wasn't said maliciously," says one, court reporter Colleen Cragle, who recorded the transcript. "He was upset that these things still happen on our streets."

Calabro's three older brothers, all practicing attorneys in Glendale, have also rallied to his cause. They regard Reiner's action as "grandstanding" and hint of legal retaliation. "It reflects on our whole family," says Alfred Calabro, 62. "Nothing is more sacred to an Italian than his name, and none of us would do anything to shame our father."

The family, insist the Calabro brothers, were the victims of ethnic prejudice themselves and thus are unlikely candidates for bigotry.

Immigrant Father

Their father, an immigrant plasterer from Sicily, moved his seven children West to escape taunts suffered in an East Coast Polish ghetto. Dining at night on pheasant hit by their Buick earlier in the day, the family followed the Lincoln Highway across the continent to East Los Angeles and invested their entire savings in a $1,200 frame house.

While the three older brothers attended Southwestern Law School, Daniel carried hod for his father and worked weekends at the family hot-dog stand. After graduating from UCLA, he promptly joined the brothers' law firm, appropriately named Calabro, Calabro, Calabro and Calabro.

Friends of the youngest Calabro during his early years as an attorney remember him as tolerant and sympathetic.

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