ALTHOUGH COLLEAGUES CITE Los Angeles superior court judge Lance Ito’s cool head and utter impartiality as ideal qualities for the presiding official of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, former college dorm-mate Robert Rose knows the real key to Ito’s success as a jurist—parking. Ito worked his way through UCLA assigning student parking. The job “gave Lance a chance to learn how to resolve conflicts, broker power and arbitrate disputes,” jokes Rose, now a San Diego attorney. “It also made him very popular.”
As pretrial hearings continue this week, Ito, 44, may not long remain Mr. Popularity, but he is certain to become the most scrutinized magistrate in American history once the trial, slated for Sept. 19, gets under way.
And he knows it. “I think you would have to be crazy to want that case,” Ito (pronounced EE-toe) told The Daily Journal, an L.A. legal newspaper, just days before his appointment to the Simpson case. And moments after being tapped he admitted, “It feels like I’ve had 12 cups of coffee, and I’ve only had one.” But Ito, apparently, can handle the spotlight. Almost two weeks ago he made the bold decision to release the full transcripts of the grand jury hearings to prevent further leaks, and he appears undaunted by what he described as the “interesting” mail he has begun receiving—some 50 to 100 letters a week from Simpson watchers.
Simpson’s is not Ito’s first high-profile case. In 1991, Ito presided over the trial of Charles Keating Jr. in the Lincoln Savings & Loan case, causing an initial stir by dismissing many of the charges. After Keating’s conviction, he surprised the courtroom cognoscenti by handing down the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for securities fraud. In June 1992 the L.A. Bar Association named Ito Trial Judge of the Year. “He’s a commonsense, no-nonsense judge,” says defense lawyer Michael Chaney, who has appeared before Ito many times. “He’s nobody’s rubber stamp.”
Before Ito was appointed to the bench in 1987 by then-governor George Deukmejian, he worked in the L.A. County district attorney’s office prosecuting cases of gang violence. For the last three years, he has assigned trial judges and courtrooms as assistant supervising judge, a high-pressure post he recently described as “air-traffic control for the criminal system.” He works such long days—usually getting to work at 6 a.m.—that he keeps a blanket and pillow in his chambers.
An L.A. native who collects fountain pens and is an amateur photographer, Ito is the son of two Japanese-American schoolteachers who met while interned during World War II. As an honor student in political science at UCLA, he was also something of a campus prankster. Every year on Dec. 7, dorm-mate Mark Wigginton remembers, Ito would don a leather aviator’s cap and at 7:55 a.m.—the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—would run through the halls setting off firecrackers and yelling about the “round eyes.” After graduating from Boalt Hall Law School at the University of California at Berkeley, Ito entered private practice in 1975 and two years later joined the D.A.’s office.
It was as a young prosecutor that he first encountered wife-to-be Margaret York, then an L.A. police detective. “We met at 4 a.m. at a homicide scene, both looking over a dead body,” Ito told a reporter not long ago. York, 53, who now heads the bunco-forgery unit, is the highest-ranking woman in the LAPD—a potential conflict of interest that Judge Ito disclosed at Simpson’s arraignment on July 22. (Neither the prosecution nor the defense team expressed concern.) The couple, who have no children, share a green-shingled house with a black-bottom swimming pool and guest house out back in Pasadena and spend many weekends at their second home in Baja California, Mexico.
Ito, a distance runner who has finished several marathons, will spend the rest of the summer getting ready for the endurance test of his life. But his colleagues have no doubt that he is up to the task. “Every single thing Lance Ito has learned or done as a prosecutor or judge will be used in this case,” says an old friend, former L.A. District Attorney Robert Philibosian, now a corporate lawyer, who first suggested Ito for a municipal judgeship. “The spotlight will not affect him one little bit. He is made of steel.”
DANELLE MORTON and LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles