When Edward Chen was inducted as a United States District Judge in the Northern District of California on September 27, 2011, his many associates, friends, family, and fans overflowed into 6 courtrooms of the Philip Burton United States Courthouse in San Francisco and watched admiringly, his induction ceremony over TV screens as Senator Dianne Feinstein administered his Oath of Office. The program opened with Friends of Judge Chen leading the group with the singing of “America the Beautiful” followed by remarks from his close associates Chief U.S. District Judge James Ware, Attorney Dale Minami, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, and the Robing ceremony by wife Janet and daughter Tara. The celebration of his induction continued at The Great Hall of the James R. Browning Courthouse with a party atmosphere of Lion Dancing, sumptuous buffet, ice cream from Fenton’s his favorite local ice cream parlor, and much hand shaking for the popular Judge Chen, who waited two years before his nomination by President Obama was finally confirmed by the Senate in May, 2011. He is the first Chinese American Federal Judge in the San Francisco area.
Three months later, it was with a little trepidation I contacted Judge Chen, asking in a letter whether he remembered his first and second grade teacher, yours truly, and would he meet me and let me interview him for AsianWeek. Yippee, he remembered me, and so on a cold January day, I got to meet the little boy I remembered as being very quiet, shy and obedient some 54 odd years later. Obviously I was impressed – and proud as any teacher would be of a former student’s success story. Can I claim any credit – that I doubt, but it isn’t every day that one’s first grade student becomes a Judge, does it?
To say the least, that shy young man obviously blossomed into the confident, ever smiling and welcoming man I shook hands with. He shared with me that he grew up in Oakland, the youngest of four boys, and moved to San Francisco in his junior year to enter Lowell High School. One memory of his childhood was that his father instilled in him a love for math, and was giving him math books and algebra problems to solve when he was barely 8 years old. “Dad and my older brother were always giving me math problems to solve, “ he said, “and when I think back about this background in problem solving, I realize that somehow this is exactly what law is all about. How better can I explain what my job is now but to be a problem solver!” he said with a laugh.
Entering UC Berkeley, Chen recalls that he was interested in science and thought of majoring in astronomy. While there, however, he soon became more aware of and interested in the Civil Rights Movement, having been a longtime admirer of Martin Luther King. This combined with a social awareness in the colleges concerning the Vietnam War seemed to have had an effect on Ed, and by the time he was a junior, he had changed majors to economics with thoughts of going to law school. A Boalt Hall Law School graduate in 1979, he recalls that barely 5% of his class comprised of Asian Americans, and there were few Asian American role models in the law profession. He credits Judges Harry Low and Lillian Sing among the few pioneers in the Asian American community then to be admired.
Although Ed Chen remembers always liking to do things for and with people, he didn’t consider himself a leader or joiner in his early years. He did some tutoring of high school kids at Berkeley High, but thinks it wasn’t until his law school years that he became more active and vocal in groups, and even volunteered working with the Asian Law Caucus.
Once he graduated, we asked him, what high points does he remember in his career? Although he could have claimed serving on the California Law Review or graduating Order of the Coif, he said his best experience was clerking for United States District Judge Charles B. Renfrew and United States Court of Appeals Chief Justice James R. Browning. He explained further, “I would say this is the best thing for a new graduate to do, because you learn the true workings of the court there. I would recommend to any new fledgling lawyer to try to get this experience.”
Another high point was working on the legal team representing Fred Korematsu in successfully overturning his WWII conviction for failing to comply with the Japanese interment order. Seeing this happen was a proud moment for all Asian Americans, and Ed proudly said, “I consider it an honor that I was there to do my part along with Dale Minami and his fine team in 1983”. Of course being nominated by President Obama and inducted to his position as United States District Judge last May, 2011 will always be a peak moment in the professional life of this young man, who once was rated unanimously “well qualified,” the highest rating by the American Bar Association.
My favorite question of successful people is where do you want to see yourself in five years, and without a blink, he said, “Right here. I love what I am doing and never want to leave!” Thinking the question over, however, he hesitated and then said, “Probably my wife would like me to say, move to Hawaii,” he added with a laugh.
Professionally, he said he is interested and wants to continue to promote judicial education with fellow judges. “One needs to continually be open to learning, and I see an importance in everyone acknowledging one’s unconscious biases and influences that affect our decision making,” he added. He is also adamant on the need for expansion of access and education for the average citizen to learn more about the judicial system and how it can help them when problems arise.
If one looked at Ed Chen, they might think of him as a happy go lucky fellow, but he is very serious when saying that he feels very keenly the responsibility on his shoulders of being the first Chinese American Federal Judge in the San Francisco area. He quotes that there are only 14 Asians in the complete Federal System of 800 judges, so obviously we all may feel the need to do a better than good job as we are setting an example for future generations. He says, “Although there has been obvious progress, Asian Americans are still underrepresented in this law profession, and most definitely in the court system.”
I promised Chen’s secretary, Leni Doyle, that I would only take a short bit of Judge Ed Chen’s tight busy schedule, so I told Ed he had to give me in a nutshell 5 words of wisdom for the next generation of Asian Americans to live by. “Okay Mrs. Wong, let’s see what your former student and this old man can come up with,” he laughed.
Here’s Ed Chen”s words to live by:
Number one would be to APPLY oneself to find something you like to do, and do the best job you can.
Number two would be to NETWORK, as anyone you meet, client or associate, may someday open doors for you for your future goals.
Number three would be to TREAT PEOPLE FAIRLY WITH RESPECT, whether they be your allies or your opponents.
Number four would be to EARN PRAISE from those around you, especially your opponents, for your integrity, fairness, and ethics.
Number five would be INVOLVEMENT in your community, city and state.
The phone was ringing, and my time was up, so I said to Ed, “How about some parting words to your former first grade teacher who remembers teaching you how to read, Judge Chen?” With that quick smile and soft chuckle, he answered, “I remember you being strict with us and I remembered not wanting to get in trouble with you, but I do remember liking your classroom and you were good to us, Mrs. Wong.” With typical Asian modesty, I demurred and told him how proud I was of him, and hoped my tough early training played some part in his success.
With our parting handshake, the reporter in me asked for some final words of wisdom from this new role model for Asian American youth of today.
He grinned, but complied, saying, “Tell them never forget where you came from and aspire to be a leader in the community. Lead with purpose and passion and in so doing, try to make things better.”
Well said, dear student, and a job well done. You’re our man of the moment, and the Chinese American community bursts with pride when they say the name, Judge Edward Chen. So do I!