By Linda Deutsch
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi, who was sent to an internment camp with his family during World War II and overcame discrimination to become the first Japanese American appointed to the federal bench, has died at the age of 78.
Takasugi, a much-honored jurist, who presided over the high-profile trial of automaker John Z. DeLorean in 1984 and authored groundbreaking opinions on constitutional issues during his 33 years on the bench, died Tuesday at a Los Angeles nursing home after a number of illnesses, according to his son, Superior Court Judge Jon Takasugi.
In 2002, Takasugi gained national attention for his dismissal of indictments of Iranian and Iranian American defendants alleged to be members of a terrorist cell attempting to overthrow the Iranian government. The group challenged their characterization as a terrorist organization. Takasugi held that the classification was unconstitutional because it was made without due process.
In the post-9/11 climate of public opinion, it was not a popular ruling, invalidating a portion of the Patriot Act.
Among his other significant rulings was a preliminary injunction barring the Los Angeles Police Department from using a controversial choke hold and a decision to release FBI documents under the Freedom of Information Act related to the politically motivated surveillance of singer John Lennon.
“He was one of my heroes,” said Judge Harry Pregerson of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “When he was presiding over a case, you knew the constitution and the bill of rights were in good hands. … He would always insure that the parties, no matter how humble or important, would get a fair trial.”
In 1984, he drew international attention with the case of DeLorean, who was charged with cocaine trafficking.
Attorney Howard Weitzman, who represented DeLorean, had known Takasugi for years but said that the prior relationship played no role in DeLorean’s acquittal. When Takasugi was on the bench, he treated all parties equally, Weitzman said.
“He had an innate ability to be fair, sometimes tough, but always acted with compassion,” he said.
Takasugi’s life was marked by overcoming discrimination.
Born in Tacoma, Wash., on Sept. 12, 1930, he was the son of impoverished Japanese parents who had immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. In 1942, when Robert was 12, they were taken to an internment camp in Tule Lake, Calif., part of the 130,000 Japanese Americans interned during the war. In the camp, his father died due to lack of medical care.
He rarely talked about the experience, except to call it “an education to be fair.”
But it was soul-searing. Later in his life, when Takasugi took up art, he often drew pictures of barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and tarpaper barracks, his son said.
Eventually Takasugi and his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he attended Belmont High School and then the University of California at Los Angeles. He was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War and upon discharge, he attended the University of Southern California Law Center with the aid of the GI bill.
He often recalled that there were only four minority students in his class and discrimination kept them from getting work when they graduated. He and the only Latino student, future Superior Court Judge Carlos Velarde, opened their own practice representing indigents arrested in the Watts riots and civil rights protesters.
Sometimes, he was paid in tamales and chickens, his son said.
He was appointed to the East Los Angeles Municipal Court bench by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1973. He moved up to Superior Court and was named to the federal bench by President Gerald Ford in 1976, the first Japanese American, according to the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and others.
He mentored many young lawyers, founding a free bar review course from his living room for those having trouble passing the bar exam. In recent years, the Robert M. Takasugi Public Interest Fellowship has given scholarships to young law students aiming to practice public interest law.
U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall said Takasugi had been expected to recover and return to the bench.
“He could have left the court years earlier,” she said. “But he was really dedicated.”
Besides his son, Takasugi is survived by his wife Dorothy, daughter Lesli, and two grandchildren.