Judge Delbert E. Wong, who was the first Chinese American to be appointed to the bench in the continental United States, died Friday night at Glendale Memorial Hospital. He was 85.
Wong had been in good health and played 18 holes of golf Friday morning, his son Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, told The Times on Saturday. But Friday afternoon, Judge Wong experienced chest pains at his Silver Lake home and was taken to a hospital. He was found to have a tear in the aorta and underwent emergency surgery, but it was unsuccessful.
The judge retired from the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench in 1982 but continued working as a private judge in dispute resolution. He also played a brief role in the O.J. Simpson murder trial when he was dispatched to collect evidence from the defendant’s Brentwood estate.
“Judge Wong was a real trailblazer as the first Chinese American judge in the continental U.S.,” said former Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, who considered Wong a mentor. “For decades he established a distinguished record as a jurist and a community leader.”
Delbert Earl Wong was born in Hanford, Calif., on May 17, 1920. Raised in Bakersfield, he earned an associate of arts degree at Bakersfield College before transferring to UC Berkeley. There, he met his future wife, Dolores Wing.
They married in 1948 and, in addition to their son Kent, had three other children: Shelley Wong Pitts, a professor at George Mason University; Duane Wong, a musician and businessman in Richmond, Calif.; and Marshall Wong, an official of the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations. They survive him, as do three grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Wong enlisted in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was a navigator aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress and completed 30 bombing missions in Europe. His first three missions were strikes against Berlin in March 1944.
Of the 18 navigators who graduated with him at Mather Field in Northern California, only three completed their 30 missions. The rest were either killed or taken as prisoners of war. Wong was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and, on four occasions, the Air Medal for his wartime service.
After his discharge as a first lieutenant, he enrolled at Stanford Law School, where he earned his degree in 1949. He worked as a deputy legislative counsel in Sacramento before transferring to the Los Angeles office. In 1952, he was appointed a deputy state attorney general by then-Atty. Gen. Pat Brown.
As governor, Brown appointed Wong to the Los Angeles County Municipal Court bench in 1959 to fill out the term of a judge who had been appointed to the Superior Court. Although Chinese Americans had been appointed to the bench in Hawaii before it was a state, Wong was the first named to the bench in the continental U.S.
Two years later, Brown elevated Wong to the Superior Court. Wong won election in 1962 and reelection on three other occasions without serious challenge.
His son Marshall said Wong was proudest of his work in People vs. Cohen, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1969 case became a landmark decision that is taught in constitutional law classes.
Wong was part of a three-member appellate panel that heard the case. It involved a college student who was convicted in municipal court after observing the trial of a fellow antiwar protester.
The student removed his jacket, which bore an expletive about the draft, before entering the courtroom, but donned it again as he left. He was arrested in the corridor for disturbing the peace and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
The three-member appellate panel reversed the decision on the basis that the message on the jacket fell within the student’s constitutional right to free speech.
When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the ruling to overturn the conviction was upheld on a 5-4 vote.
Wong also played important roles in local committees and commissions.
In 1986, after he had retired from the bench, he was asked by the Los Angeles Department of Airports to conduct an extensive probe into allegations of racial discrimination within the 300-member Los Angeles Airport Police Bureau. A group of African American employees had filed complaints of a glass ceiling that prevented advancement. He found that there was discrimination and that of the 150 minorities on the force, virtually none had been promoted to positions as sergeants, lieutenants or captains.
“It was almost like a plantation where you had the white officers at the top and all the officers of color in the lower ranks,” Wong said in a taped interview.
After his investigation, the department revised its promotional practices and retained an outside agency to conduct human relations training.
In 1989, Mayor Tom Bradley appointed Wong to a seven-member panel to draft an ethics policy for the city of Los Angeles.
But the judge’s most unusual activity in retirement was acting as a special master in the Simpson case. He also testified at the trial.
Over the years, Wong and his wife played significant roles in the Chinese American community. He was a leading financial supporter of the Asian-Pacific American Legal Center. He was also a key supporter of the Chinatown Service Center, which is best known for senior citizen programs.
Wong and his wife were co-founders of the Asian Pacific American Friends of the Center Theater Group in the 1990s, the first time the theater group had tried to generate support among Asian communities in Los Angeles.
At home, Wong was remembered by family members for making breakfast for his children each morning and participating in their activities as a Scout leader.
The Wongs were also pioneers in opening up the Silver Lake area to minorities. They had been looking for property throughout Los Angeles and in 1953 found a lot in Silver Lake. The real estate agent handling the transaction for the owner balked when he met with Wong, telling him that the land was not available to a Chinese American.
Wong, however, found the name of the property owner and contacted him. The owner expressed dismay at the agent’s position and threatened to fire him if he didn’t negotiate with Wong.
The family was the first to break the color barrier in Silver Lake, and it was in that home that Wong was stricken Friday.