Who made history this week by being nominated to be a judge? If your answer was Sonia Sotomayor, you are only partly correct. While Sotomayor set the world abuzz after being appointed to the Supreme Court, another historic first occurred when President Obama nominated U.S. Magistrate Judge Edward M. Chen to serve as a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of California. If confirmed, he will be the first Asian American district judge in Northern California history. Chen was also the first Asian American magistrate judge when he was appointed back in 2001.
This achievement probably doesn’t seem like much in light of Sotomayor — after all, we’re not talking about the Supreme Court here and Chen isn’t the first Asian judge in U.S. history.
To understand why this is such an enormous victory for Asian Americans, we need to review some statistics. I was surprised to learn that Asians have been lagging behind other minorities in legal representation for years. The first African American and Hispanic judges were appointed in 1950 and 1961, respectively, but the first Asian American judge, Herbert Choy, was appointed in 1971. In addition, there has never been an Asian American judge on the Supreme Court. With all this in mind, Chen’s nomination, while not on the scale of Sotomayor’s, is still an impressive accomplishment.
The nomination comes at a time so symbolic it could have been discussed in your high school history class: trailblazer Robert M. Takasugi, the first Japanese American appointed to federal bench, died on Aug. 6, the day before the nomination was announced. Takasugi, a survivor of the Japanese internment camps during WWII, fought extensively for the rights of minorities and women during his lengthy career through actions both big and small. He was the first judge to hire a female clerk, he created the Pro Bono Bar Review, and in 2002, he gained national attention for his dismissal of terrorist accusations against Iranian defendants.
Chen has followed Takasugi’s stead — as a lawyer in 1983, he won a case to overturn a Japanese American man’s conviction for defying WWII internment. Judges like these bring new perspective and experience to the court and ensure fair treatment for all. If there had been more judges like Chen and Takasugi in the past, there likely wouldn’t have been so many racist laws and graduates wouldn’t have received their degrees 60 years later.
While Chen’s nomination is awaiting the Senate’s approval, we honor influential life and work of Takasugi, who paved the way for Asian Americans in the federal courts today. A memorial for Takasugi will be held at the University of Southern California this Thursday.
Photo (top) of Edward Chen courtesy of Asian American Bar Association; photo (bottom) of Robert Takasugi by Gary Miyatake/Associated Press