Thursday, March 21, 2002
Longtime Civil Liberties Lawyer Fred Okrand Dies at 84
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Attorney Fred Okrand, a veteran of more than 500 cases on civil rights issues ranging from the right of a State Bar applicant to refuse to answer questions about Communist Party affiliations to school busing to abortion, has died at 84.
Okrand, a lawyer for more than 60 years who argued at least four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, died Monday night after a long illness, the ACLU of Southern California said yesterday in a statement.
“He was smart, he was devoted to the ACLU and to civil liberties and he was always warm and friendly,” ACLU Executive Director Ramona Ripston told the MetNews.
“He never sought personal glory, he never fought for personal recognition,” Ripston said. “He just loved life, loved people, loved his friends [and was] an unusually rounded person.”
The issue with which Okrand was most associated was the World War II internment of persons of Japanese ancestry. With his late partner, A.L. Wirin, he represented internees and served as longtime special counsel to the Japanese American Citizens League.
His commitment to the issue lasted decades. Four years ago, he represented a class of more than 2,000 persons of Japanese ancestry who obtained $5,000 each and an apology from the U.S. government for its actions in having them removed from their homes in Latin America and forcibly brought to this country, allegedly to be held for civilian prisoner exchanges.
He just recently participated in a panel discussion on “Civil Liberties and National Security: What Lessons Can We Learn From the Japanese American Experiences During World War II?”
His wide-ranging legal knowledge, devotion to principle, and pleasant demeanor made him an impressive figure, friends and former colleagues recalled.
“He was a superb lawyer and a lawyer who always used the opportunity to teach,” Court of Appeal Justice Dennis M. Perluss of this district’s Div. Seven explained. Perluss, who was co-counsel with Okrand in several matters and opposing counsel on others, said the older lawyer was “awfully patient” and willing to explain his positions calmly and at length.
Lawyers “always found it a treat to be litigating with him,” whether on the same or the opposite side, Perluss commented. Among their cases together, he recalled, was Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, a 1983 case that struck down California’s loitering law.
After representing the regional ACLU affiliate for more than 20 years as a volunteer lawyer, Okrand became its legal director in 1972. He retired in 1984 but assumed the “emeritus” title and continued to work on cases.
He was also the longtime vice-chair of the Individual Rights Section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association.
His death marks “the end of an era,” civil rights lawyer Carol Sobel said. “Fred represents just incredible longevity in the community of lawyers who developed civil liberties law.”
Sobel, who worked at the ACLU for years but is now in private practice in Santa Monica, said Okrand’s death was a deep personal blow as well.
“I am so appreciative every day of the opportunity that I had to work directly with Fred and to learn from him how to be a civil liberties lawyer, to use the precedents that he established to continue that struggle,” she commented. “But most importantly I appreciate everything he taught me about being a human being…He was one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life.”
Sobel’s comments were echoed by Erwin Chemerinsky, professor of constitutional law at USC, where Okrand earned his law degree 62 years ago.
Okrand was “a great man and a great civil libertarian,” Chemerinsky said. “He had just a wonderful spirit and sense of humanity [and] his commitment to civil liberties came from that core sense of human decency.”
Okrand is survived by his wife Mimi—who accepted the ACLU’s Lifetime Achievement Award last year at a luncheon he was too sick to attend—and by his sons Dean and Mark. The ACLU said cremation would be private, but that a memorial service will be held at a later date.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company