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THE SPIN / BILL BOYARSKY

Far-Flung Roots of Judge's Ruling

October 19, 1994|BILL BOYARSKY

Around the courthouse, judges are treated with respect and a certain awe.

It's as though they're special people, protected from the pressures and influences of normal life by their black robes and their perches on an elevated bench.

Having spent much of my reporting life in a different culture, covering the coarser world of politics, I find this amusing.

To me, a judge is a lawyer lucky enough to have thrown a fund-raiser for the person who happened to get elected governor. Or a lawyer who knows someone who knows the governor well enough to put in a good word.

These connections are more than political. They are ideological. Governors appoint judges who share their beliefs on the law, especially on the conduct of the criminal courts.

Nobody was truer to this precept than George Deukmejian, who devoted his two terms, from 1983 to 1991, to shaping the courts to reflect his unbending pro-police, pro-prosecutor, law-and-order vision of California. Among those he appointed was a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney named Lance A. Ito, who had been recommended by a friend and ideological soul mate of the governor's, then-Dist. Atty. Bob Philibosian.

Knowing the nature of the Deukmejian judges, and the way they have shaped the courts and the law, helps explain why Judge Ito on Tuesday refused a defense request that he discipline prosecutors for taking too long to complete the long-awaited DNA tests--another ruling that favored the prosecution in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

*

Memories being short, people don't associate Ito with the stern, usually grim, Deukmejian.

Unlike Deukmejian, Ito has his off-the-wall moments. Friends say he's a practical joker. And although he's always zinging the press, he's an occasional contributor to Steve Harvey's "Only in L.A." column. One of his items was about dueling traffic signs, a right-lane-must-turn-right sign near one outlawing right-hand turns. He took a photo of the signs, which Harvey put in the paper.

Another item was about devices that looked like video cameras over a crosswalk near City Hall. The transportation department said they were traffic measuring devices, but Ito, sounding suspicious of a Big Brother-type conspiracy, wrote Harvey, "Seems like a lot of effort to catch a jaywalker."

Despite his occasional light touch, however, Ito fits the profile of a Deukmejian judge.

He was a prosecutor in the organized crime and intelligence division and in the gang unit. There, he worked well with L.A. cops, who usually bad-mouth deputy D.A.s. Ito and his partner, Peter S. Berman, "kept us out of trouble and helped guide us," said Sergio Robleto, commanding officer of the South Bureau homicide unit, who worked with Ito in those days.

In fact, Ito got on so well with cops that he married one, Margaret York, who was then an LAPD detective. They met when the cops roused Ito from bed at 4 a.m. to obtain a search warrant. Today, she heads the LAPD's bunco-forgery unit and is the highest-ranked woman in the department.

"I knew Deukmejian was looking for people who shared his common-sense, law-and-order profile," Philibosian said. "I thought Lance was particularly well suited in that regard."

So I wasn't surprised when Ito sided with the D.A.'s office Tuesday.

The defense contended that the prosecution had dawdled in sending a bloody glove and other key evidence to a laboratory for testing of DNA. Simpson lawyers argued that prosecutors were trying to overwhelm them with an "avalanche" of test results at the last minute, making it impossible for them to analyze the material. The defense had asked for sanctions against the prosecution--that the test results be thrown out unless they were submitted by Friday.

"The prosecution is correct in its position that the sanctions sought by the defendant are authorized neither by statute or case law," Ito ruled. The prosecution, he said, had complied with the law.

You may recall that last Friday, Ito had chewed out Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Kahn for the testing delays. This prompted some courthouse observers to speculate that he'd side with the defense. But Ito's pique at Kahn didn't mean he'd turn on the prosecution, any more than his sending items to Steve Harvey's column means he likes the press.

*

There's more to Ito's decision than the judge's own background.

I got an insight into that Tuesday when I talked to Gerald Chaleff, a Los Angeles defense lawyer and former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.

Chaleff reminded me that since the election of Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966, the California bench has been filled with conservative appointees, with the exception of eight years of Jerry Brown. That means eight years of Reagan, eight of Deukmejian and three of Pete Wilson, all appointing conservative law-and-order judges. Nineteen conservative years to eight liberal ones.

In addition, the federal bench has been filled with conservative judges since the late Richard Nixon's election in 1968, with the exception of four years of Jimmy Carter and two of Bill Clinton.

This means, Chaleff said, that volumes of conservative federal and state decisions have greatly eased restrictions on the manner in which the prosecution can submit evidence. These judicial decisions have been strengthened by legislation passed by lawmakers--Democrats and Republicans--who have been responsive to the public's demand for tougher laws on crime. "The people are getting what they voted for," Chaleff said.

So Judge Ito on Tuesday was guided not only by his political and ideological roots and his personal philosophy, but also by a body of conservative law.

His decisions are no surprise. He is merely a highly visible example of what has happened to the law and criminal courts.

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