Voters elected Julie Tang to the Municipal Court bench in San Francisco in 1990. More than three decades after the start of the civil rights movement in 1954, few people who sat in her chair looked like her.
“It was just a sea of White males,” she recalled attending a judicial conference. I just looked like an oddball.”
At times lawyers would walk into her chambers and wonder if she was the intern.
Today, it’s a different story with Asian American occupying judge’s chambers at all levels of the judiciary.
President Joe Biden is on pace to win confirmation of a record number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the federal bench. So far, an administration official tells AsAmNews that 20 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been confirmed as federal judges in Biden’s first 26 months in office.
That’s a far cry from when Dale Minami first became a litigator in the early 1970s
“They had no Asian Americans on that (federal) court for years despite the rich and infamous history of that court handling some of the major cases that went to the Supreme Court regarding Asian American rights,” said attorney Dale Minami who began practicing law in the early 1970s.
He believes that lack of diversity negatively impacted the AAPI community.
He once asked a judge to appoint an interpreter for his non-English speaking Chinese client.
“Why don’t you interpret for him,” the judge asked.
“Well, your honor, he’s Chinese and I’m Japanese.”
“What’s the difference,” the judge replied.
Eventually, that judge granted the request.
Incidents like that one inspired Minami to fight for change.
He joined a number of Asian American lawyers lobbying for more nominations and appointments of AAPIs to the bench in 1976. So did the Asian American Bar Association. The change began to happen, albeit slowly.
Beginning with President Nixon, Tang says each President won confirmation of just a single handful of Asian American judges.
A monumental shift began with President Obama who she says confirmed 22 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the federal bench.
The Biden administration says it confirmed more AAPI judges “at this point in his Administration (20) than Presidents Trump, George W. Bush, and Clinton confirmed in their entire terms (13, 4, and 5).”
Among those who have been confirmed under President Biden:
- Judge Cindy Chung (of Pennsylvania) became the first AA and NHPI judge to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which includes Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
- Judge John Lee (of Illinois) became the first AA and NHPI judge to ever serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which includes Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.
- Judge Roopali Desai (of Arizona) became the first South Asian woman to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit—the largest appellate court in the country. The Ninth Circuit includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington State.
- Judge Jennifer Sung (of Oregon) became the first AA and NHPI judge to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit from Oregon.
- Judge Lucy Koh (of California) of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the first Korean-American woman to serve as a federal circuit court judge.
Sing says she never aspired to go to the Federal Bench, but recognizes its importance.
“They monitor and hear constitutional issues and international issues, and cross-state issues. So those are very important,” said the retired judge.
‘Obama did well, he did really well. But Joe Biden is taking a step forward and that’s amazing- the first Muslim American Pakistani judge. He’s done first in almost every category,” said Minami.
If Tang were still on the bench today, she would no longer be an oddball.
AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Please fill out this 2-minute survey which we will use to improve our content. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.”