APALC Honors Memory of Legal Pioneer Judge Delbert E. Wong
LOS ANGELES, CA The Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California (APALC) mourns the loss of Judge Delbert E. Wong, who passed away on March 10 at the age of 85, and extends its deepest sympathy to the family of Judge Wong.
"Judge Wong was an inspiration and a pioneer in the Asian American and legal communities, and a champion of justice and equality," said Stewart Kwoh, APALC president and executive director. "He was a mentor to me personally and a hero to the board and staff of APALC. His legacy is that of an outstanding lawyer and judge; a devoted husband, father and grandfather; and a community leader who led the way for others. In his passing, we have lost a giant in our community."
For several generations of Asian American law students and lawyers, Judge Wong represented a pioneer and trailblazer. Judge Wong was the first Chinese or Asian American in many legal settings, including graduating from Stanford Law School and serving as deputy Legislative Counsel for the state legislature and deputy Attorney General for California. In 1959, he became the first Chinese American judge in the continental United States. He stayed on the bench for more than two decades, retiring in 1982 but remaining active in the legal community through private arbitration.
In addition to breaking down racial barriers in the legal field, Judge Wong played an instrumental role in remedying inequity in cases he handled. In one notable case, Judge Wong stood up for the constitutional guarantee of free speech. As part of a three-member appellate panel, Judge Wong ruled in 1969 in People v Cohen that an anti-draft message on the jacket of a college student observing the trial of a fellow antiwar protester was protected speech. Judge Wong and the appellate panel overturned the lower court's decision to sentence the college student to 30 days in jail for disturbing the peace. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the appellate panel's decision and the case is still taught today in constitutional law classes. Even after retiring from the bench, Judge Wong played an important legal role. In 1986, the Los Angeles Department of Airports asked Judge Wong to investigate complaints from African American employees, alleging that the Los Angeles Airport Police Bureau prevented the promotion of African Americans. Judge Wong found significant discrimination in the 300-member bureau and in a taped interview said, "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." His investigation led to changes in the bureau's promotional practices.
Judge Wong has also been a long-time leader and supporter in the Los Angeles Asian American community. Judge Wong and his wife, Dolores, were early and generous supporters of the nation's largest Asian American civil rights organization, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC). According to Martin Lee, APALCs board chair, "When APALC started its capital campaign in 1999 to purchase its current home in downtown Los Angeles, the Wongs were the first major donors to the campaign, paving the way for the most successful fundraising effort in APALC's 23-year history." The Wongs also supported other community institutions such as the Chinatown Service Center and the Chinese American Museum.
A fourth-generation Chinese American, Delbert Earl Wong was born in 1920 in Hanford, California, and raised in Bakersfield. Before Stanford Law School, Judge Wong graduated from UC Berkeley and served in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross as well as the Air Medal, on four occasions, for his wartime service. Judge Wong is survived by his wife, four children, and three grandchildren.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made in Judge Wong's memory to the following nonprofit organizations:
Asian Pacific American Legal Center, 1145 Wilshire Blvd., 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90017
Chinatown Service Center, 767 N Hill Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Chinese American Museum, 425 North Los Angeles Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012