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OBITUARIES / Edward Rafeedie, 1929 - 2008

Judge exhibited pragmatism, independence

March 30, 2008|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie, whose decisions in several high-profile trials -- including the 1990 case of a Mexican doctor accused of torturing a U.S. drug enforcement agent -- earned him a reputation as a no-nonsense jurist with an independent streak, died of cancer Tuesday at his home in Malibu. He was 79.

President Reagan appointed Rafeedie to the federal bench in 1982, one of 13 judges named by the president during a four-year period in the 1980s who came to form a conservative majority at the U.S. courthouse in Los Angeles. The distinction of being a "Reagan judge" was not always a predictor of Rafeedie's decisions.

In 1990, Rafeedie stunned the Justice Department when he ruled that the kidnapping of Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain was illegal and ordered him returned to Mexico. Alvarez Machain had been accused of helping drug traffickers torture and kill U.S. drug agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, who was murdered in Mexico in 1985. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration paid a band of Mexican citizens to kidnap Alvarez Machain in Mexico and flew him to the U.S. to stand trial -- an act that caused an international outcry and strained relations between the two countries.

Rafeedie's ruling that the kidnapping violated a U.S.-Mexico extradition treaty surprised and angered government agents. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled the judge's decision. But in 1992 Rafeedie granted a request for dismissal, arguing that the evidence did not support the charges against Alvarez Machain.

"His decisions in the Alvarez case were very courageous in the midst of a very contentious case; the government and the public at large were opposed to the defendant," said Paul Hoffman, former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and one of the attorneys who represented Alvarez Machain. "I don't think he was in general perceived to be soft on criminals or in criminal cases. I think he was just a fair man."

The son of Palestinian immigrants, Rafeedie was born Jan. 6, 1929, in Orange, N.J. When he was 7, the family moved to Santa Monica, and, five years later, Rafeedie was working in the old Pacific Ocean Park, operating rides.

"He was born in America, and then his parents took him back" to the Middle East for a time, said his daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Rafeedie. "He actually lived there when it was occupied by Britain. He recalled throwing stones at the British soldiers."

Back in the U.S., Rafeedie graduated from Venice High School. During World War II, he traveled the carnival circuit with a portable electric horse-race game called Derby. After serving two years in the Army during the Korean War, Rafeedie followed the lead of a carnival friend who was studying law and enrolled at USC. Later in life he described himself as "the only carny to ever get to the federal courts."

In 1957, Rafeedie graduated from USC with a bachelor's degree in law, and two years later graduated from the university's school of law, according to his biography. Rafeedie worked in private practice for nearly a decade until then-Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed him as a Municipal Court judge in 1969. Two years later, he joined the Superior Court, where he remained for 11 years. He presided over several high-profile state cases, including the contested conservatorship of Groucho Marx, the Britt Ekland and Rod Stewart palimony trial and part of the Bob Dylan divorce case. He sentenced daredevil Evel Knievel to jail for attacking a television executive with a baseball bat.

Rafeedie also presided over a public corruption case in the City of Industry, imposing a 10-year prison term on businessman and city founder James Marty Stafford.

"I thought it was important for the public to see that white-collar criminals should be treated no differently than a fellow who walks into a bank," Rafeedie said in a 1986 Times article. "There's a perception anyway that white-collar offenders always get off. I think that needs to be corrected."

On the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench he earned distinction for eliminating a backlog of cases through a system of calendar management. The efficient management of trials remained a key concern for him. He argued in a law journal article that most trials last two to three times longer than they should because of "slavish adherence to trial procedures which are outmoded, inherently inefficient and time wasting."

In his courtroom, trials that attorneys predicted would last two weeks could be reduced to two days.

Rafeedie had detractors. In the case of Jarek Molski, who filed 400 lawsuits alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Rafeedie ruled that Molski could not file any more suits in Los Angeles federal court without approval from a judge. The jurist called Molski a "hit-and-run plaintiff" and accused the disabled man's attorney of assisting in the "abusive litigation practices."

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