There has never been a federal judicial induction ceremony quite like this one. Nearly 1,000 people crammed into six courtrooms to watch Judge Edward M. Chen inducted as the first Chinese-American judge on the federal bench in the Northern California. In the early decades of the court’s 158-year history its first judge, Ogden Hoffman, granted hundreds of petitions from Chinese immigrants seeking admission to the U.S., despite anti-Chinese exclusion laws.
The massive ceremonial courtroom, crammed with 250 Chen’s friends, colleagues and family watched touching and often comic tributes as the event was piped via closed circuit TV to the five overflow courtrooms.
Chen’s arrival on the federal bench was no easy task. As a former American Civil Liberties Union staff lawyer for 16 years, he ran into pretty stiff headwinds from Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee and in floor debates. It took President Barack Obama four tries at nomination over two years before reluctant Republicans confirmed Chen’s nomination.
At one point in his confirmation, conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions said that Chen had the ACLU in his DNA, suggesting his fairness on the bench may be suspect. But Chen took the opportunity during the January 27 investiture to respond that “having the ACLU in your DNA is not a disease, it’s an honor.”
His name first went to the Senate in August 2009 and by October 15 the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-7 along party lines to send his name to the full senate. But on Christmas eve, the Senate sent Chen’s nomination back to the president. Obama renominated him in January 2010 but the Senate again punted him back to the White House. Undeterred, the president nominated him a third time in September 2011 and finally a fourth time in January 2011. The Senate confirmed him by 56-42 vote and he was commissioned a federal judge May 12, 2011.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who spoke on his behalf and administered his oath of office, came in for several rounds of applause and praise for her pushing of Chen’s confirmation in the face of stiff opposition.
When she asked too early in the proceedings if Chen should join her to take the oath, Chief Judge James Ware replied, “Not yet.” Drawing the quip from Chen, “I’m used to waiting.”
Feinstein pointed out that Chen worked on the team of lawyers who successfully overturned the World War II conviction of Fred Korematsu for defying the federal order for all Japanese in the West to report to relocation camps. Chen sat beside Judge Marilyn Hall Patel who issued the order overturning Korematsu’s conviction more than 40 years after the war.
Joining the crowd were Judge James Browning, who has served 50 years on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and is now in his 90s. Chen served as a law clerk Browning. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Chen’s former college roommate, attended, along with judges from around the country, including Hawaii’s chief judge and former Los Angeles Chief Judge Terry Hatter.
Although Chen is the first Chinese-American on the Northern District bench, he is not the first Asian. Judge Lucy Koh, another Obama appointee, beat him through the confirmation process. She is Korean-American and serves in San Jose.
Chen told the crowd he never considered withdrawing his nomination, despite the initial rejections. It was a matter of principle he told the audience. He wanted to show that a lawyer can practice public interest law, even for the ACLU, and still be selected as a life-tenure federal judge. The federal bench is not just for people from large corporate law firms, or who represent only the wealthy, or who never speak out, or play it safe in their careers he told the crowd.