From the Boxing Ring to the Courtroom: Justice Peter Tom’s Life as a Pioneer

AABANY is proud to spotlight Hon. Peter Tom, the 2021 recipient of the New York State Bar Association’s George Bundy Smith Pioneer Award. Justice Tom says he is honored to receive an award named after Judge Smith, whom he always considered a good judge and good friend. Judge Smith served on the New York Court of Appeals and was a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. Since 2007, the honor in his namesake has been accorded to lawyers who demonstrate a similar level of commitment to legal excellence, community service and mentoring. Justice Tom has done just that in his trailblazing, thirty-plus year judicial career. 

After graduating from Brooklyn Law School in 1975, Justice Tom joined the Civil Court of the City of New York as a Law Clerk, working on a wide variety of criminal and civil assignments. As he grew comfortable in the court system, he began rethinking his original plans to start his own law firm, and in 1985, Justice Tom became the first Asian American appointed to the Housing Court of the City of New York. Although he could not have known it then, this initial foray into the court system would launch a long and distinguished career of judicial “firsts” for an Asian American. In 1987, Justice Tom was one of the first Asian Americans elected to the Civil Court of the City of New York; in 1990, he became the first Asian American elected to the New York State Supreme Court in New York County; and from 1994 until 2008, he served as the first and only Asian American in the Appellate Division of the State of New York. 

While Justice Tom’s judicial career is defined by a multitude of groundbreaking rulings and widely publicized opinions, his success spanned beyond the walls of the courtroom. At age 18, Justice Tom became the first Asian American to win the New York Golden Gloves — amateur boxing’s most prestigious tournament. What began as a tactic for self-defense had landed him in Madison Square Garden’s ring on the week of four exams. As his attention flitted from schoolwork to boxing, the young Tom was learning a lesson that stuck with him even after he swapped his gloves for a gavel. In the words of the Justice, “You cannot excel at more than one thing in life because there’s just not enough time to prepare yourself. So work harder than the competition in whatever you do, and you’ll come out ahead.”

And work hard he did. While his days in retirement have been dedicated to exercise, art, and travel, Justice Tom spent much of his professional career burning the midnight oil. In his very first judicial position, the then-Housing Court Judge was swamped with twenty to thirty new cases on a daily basis. Justice Tom recalls laboring to reach as many settlements as possible on the weekdays before spending entire weekends writing legal opinions. During this time, a frequent visitor of his was the courthouse custodian, who would come in at midnight to send the indefatigable judge home before locking up. 

The concept of halfhearted work was just as foreign to Justice Tom then as it was years earlier in the boxing ring. While serving on the New York Supreme Court, he sought to instill the same tenacity in his interns, whom he taught that nothing short of absolute focus was essential for success. It is this sort of tireless work ethic that Justice Tom hopes to impress upon all aspiring jurists: “Nothing in life comes easy, so build a strong reputation for yourself by volunteering your time to your community and by working hard.”

Over the course of his judicial career, Justice Tom authored more than 500 legal opinions, many of which received front page coverage in the New York Law Journal. As a testament to the fairness of his decisions, the Court of Appeals regularly affirmed his opinions and used his dissents as the basis for reversal. In one of his most groundbreaking rulings, Justice Tom employed a 100-year-old “Bawdy House Statute” for the first time to evict drug dealers from residential property. His decision could not have come at a more opportune moment for New York, which was then being ravaged by the 1980s crack epidemic. Employing Justice Tom’s novel application of the statute, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office subsequently established a Narcotics Eviction Part throughout the city’s Civil Courts. The Justice’s ingenuity thereby helped to convert an obscure law from 1840 into a potent weapon for clearing out crack dens across the city.

While serving in the Appellate Division, Justice Tom enjoyed hearing cases on the whole spectrum of legal issues, from commercial and criminal to housing and family. One particular case, however, remains among his proudest accomplishments. People v. Luis Kevin Rojas centered on the wrongful murder conviction of Luis Rojas, whose lawyer had failed to investigate his alibi and even ineptly indicated during trial that Rojas was present at the crime scene. After his conviction, Rojas hired new lawyers and private investigators, who unearthed evidence that seemed to vindicate Rojas entirely. Writing for the appellate panel, Justice Tom castigated the defendant’s trial counsel for his “ignorance of the facts” and reversed Rojas’ conviction and his sentence of 15 years to life. Justice Tom’s decision, which saved an innocent man from a potential lifetime in prison, was featured in both the New York Times and the New York Law Journal.

Justice Tom’s first bench in the Appellate Division of the State of New York.

Though his extensive resume of legal triumphs might suggest otherwise, Justice Tom’s judicial path was not always seamless. Among the obstacles he faced was the former lack of a bar association representing Asian Americans. While AABANY now boasts nearly 1500 members as the nation’s largest affinity bar association, it was still a nascent organization — only one year old — when Justice Tom applied for his third judicial position in 1990. At the time, there were well-established ethnic bar associations for virtually all the other minority candidates. The Jewish Lawyers Guild had been established in 1962, the LGBT Bar Association of New York in 1978, and so on. Justice Tom’s ability to climb the court system without similar representation was the exception rather than the norm, as revealed by the paucity of Asian American judges seated back then.

While diversity on the bench has since increased, today’s courts are still far from reflecting the diversity of the communities they serve. Justice Tom identifies the lack of AAPIs in the judiciary as the primary reason that Asian Americans do not feel comfortable participating in the system. Particularly amid the ongoing surge in anti-Asian violence, Justice Tom says that many Asians view the predominantly white court system as a foreign institution — one where their chances of achieving proper recourse are slim. In this context, Justice Tom believes that his various judicial appointments have helped Asian Americans feel more like a part of the institution themselves. AAPIs constitute a large portion of the New York population, and representation in the judiciary must reflect this population. According to Justice Tom, greater representation of Asians among court personnel at all levels, from officers and reporters to clerks and judges, will increase the fairness of the institution in both appearance and reality.

Justice Tom served as Acting Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, First
Department in 2007, 2009, and 2016.

As a harbinger of the increased diversity he hopes for, Justice Tom left a judicial legacy that doubtlessly merits NYSBA’s George Bundy Smith Pioneer award. Looking forward, he believes that AABANY’s rapid growth will enable the association to play a critical role in seating even more Asian Americans on the bench. Because judges can only say so much while remaining bipartisan, Justice Tom views AABANY as an advocate that can speak on behalf of budding Asian American jurists. One can only hope that among this group of aspirants, some will follow in Justice Tom’s footsteps and emerge as the next generation of legal pioneers. 

AABANY encourages everyone to attend the presentation of Justice Tom’s award at NYSBA’s Commercial and Federal Litigation Spring Meeting on Thursday, May 6, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The registration page for the award ceremony can be found here.

Common Threads of Justice: Get to Know Hon. Peter Tom

The Historical Society of the New York Courts continues its month-long celebration of Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month with its 2017 film Get to Know: Hon. Peter Tom. At the time of the interview, Justice Tom served as the Acting Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, First Department.
 
The now-retired Justice Tom speaks of his upbringing in Hong Kong, and how his early years in the United States brought him to an interest in the law. He traces his judicial career from Housing Court Judge to Appellate Division Justice. He also discusses the importance of boxing in his life. The film comes full circle in Justice Tom’s reflections on the American dream.

ASIAN AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION OF NEW YORK HONORS RANDALL T. ENG WITH NORMAN LAU KEE TRAILBLAZER AWARD

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

NEW YORK – Sept. 8, 2017 – The Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) is proud to announce that the Hon. Randall T. Eng, Presiding Justice, Appellate Division, Second Department, will be the recipient of the Norman Lau Kee Trailblazer Award at AABANY’s Eighth Annual Fall Conference on September 23, 2017, to be held at the Fordham University School of Law.

Named for Norman Lau Kee, a revered legal and community pillar of New York City’s Chinatown for decades, this Trailblazer Award honors an accomplished leader in the legal profession who is of Asian Pacific American (APA) descent or has demonstrated dedication to APA issues in the community. This award honors an individual who has carved a path for others to follow, served the community as a mentor and role model, and has made a lasting impact on the APA community through his or her dedication and commitment.

Hon. Randall T. Eng was a groundbreaker long before he was appointed by Governor Cuomo to be the first APA Presiding Justice of an Appellate Division in New York. A graduate of St. John’s University School of Law, Justice Eng served as New York’s first APA Assistant District Attorney in 1973. He later became the first APA judge in New York in 1983, when Mayor Edward Koch appointed him to the Criminal Court of the City of New York.

Justice Eng was elected to two terms as Justice of the New York Supreme Court in 1990 and 2004, and in 2007 became the first Asian American Administrative Judge of the Queens County Supreme Court, Criminal Term. A former colonel of the New York Army National Guard, adjunct professor of law at St. John’s University School of Law, and Inspector General of the New York City Correction Department, Justice Eng’s career shines brightly as an exemplar of both service and groundbreaking pioneering ability.

Born in China, Justice Eng moved to the United States with his family when he was just six months old. His father, an Air Force veteran of World War II, opened a laundry and cleaning store in Queens—one of the few options available for Asian and immigrant families during that time. Aware from an early age of the barriers that awaited him if he tried to pursue law, Justice Eng remained, in his own words, “undaunted…because that was the era of civil rights.” It is that undaunted spirit of Justice Eng’s that has made him a trailblazer and an inspiration for Asian Americans in the legal community and throughout the country.

Today, Justice Eng plays a key role in the development of jurisprudence and judicial policy in New York as Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department. The ten counties under its purview make Justice Eng’s Appellate Division one of the nation’s busiest. From supervising the court’s various agencies to being the Second Department’s Chief Administrator, Justice Eng has significant responsibilities at one of the highest levels of the state’s judiciary system. All the while, he has helped to pave the way for generations of APA lawyers in government, and remains an uplifting example for the APA community.

“At a time when the obstacles that face APAs in the law seem innumerable, Justice Randall T. Eng through his career has blazed a trail toward a more promising future for APAs in the legal profession and inspired generations of lawyers,” states AABANY President Dwight Yoo. “AABANY is honored to present Justice Eng the Norman Lau Kee Trailblazer Award at its Eighth Annual Fall Conference.”                                    

For more information, please contact Yang Chen, AABANY Executive Director, at (212) 332-2478, or direct any inquiries to main@aabany.org.

The Asian American Bar Association of New York is a professional membership organization of attorneys concerned with issues affecting the Asian Pacific American community. Incorporated in 1989, AABANY seeks not only to encourage the professional growth of its members but also to advocate for the Asian Pacific American community as a whole. AABANY is the New York regional affiliate of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA).

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Press Release: AABANY Congratulates Justice Jeffrey Oing and Justice Anil Singh on Their Historic Appointment to New York’s Appellate Division First Department

Press Release: AABANY Congratulates Justice Jeffrey Oing and Justice Anil Singh on Their Historic Appointment to New York’s Appellate Division First Department

Hon. Peter Tom Speech at NYCLA Dinner on Dec. 13, 2016

Hon. Peter Tom Speech at NYCLA Dinner on Dec. 13, 2016

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On January 31, AABANY’s Judiciary Committee co-organized a community celebration in New York’s Chinatown in honor of the Hon. Randall T. Eng to recognize his historic elevation to Presiding Justice, Appellate Division, Second Department, the first Asian American to be appointed to this position. About 250 attendees filled Delight 28 located at 28 Pell Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, next door to the building that Presiding Justice Eng and his family first moved into upon arriving in the United States from Hong Kong.

Many AABANY members were present, including President Jean Lee, Immediate Past President Linda Lin and past presidents James Chou, Vincent Chang, Yang Chen and Glenn Lau-Kee. The Prosecutors’ Committee also turned out in force, having honored Presiding Justice Eng as a trailblazer in 2011. Rosemary Yu, ADA from the New York County DA’s office, was one of the organizers of the event, together with Mark Fang, who came to know Justice Eng through the JAG Corp.

Presiding Justice Eng’s parents, wife, sister and in-laws also came out to celebrate along with many community members and leaders, not just in Chinatown but from Westchester as well.

We thank everyone who attended for making this a truly memorable and special occasion.

Press Release: AABANY Celebrates the Appointment of the Hon. Justice Randall T. Eng

The Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) and the AABANY Judiciary Committee celebrate the historic appointment of the Honorable Justice Randall T. Eng as Presiding Justice of the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division, Second Department with a celebratory community dinner.

Justice Eng will be the guest of honor at a celebratory dinner to be held Thursday, January 31, 2013.  The dinner will bring together Asian American organizations from all over New York, including Chinatown-based civic groups, Asian Americans in law enforcement, lawyers, judges, law students, and friends.  The dinner will be held at 6:30P.M. at Delight 28 Restaurant, 28 Pell Street New York, New York 10013.

Justice Eng is the first Asian American to serve as a Presiding Justice in New York State’s history.  With this appointment, Justice Eng adds to his long list of notable ‘firsts,’ such as being the first Asian Pacific American Assistant District Attorney in the State of New York, for which the AABANY Prosecutors’ Committee honored him at its third anniversary reception in 2011.

“Justice Eng has demonstrated strong leadership and exceptional jurisprudential skill at every level in our court system and will do so as Presiding Justice.  Moreover, as an Asian American trailblazer, Justice Eng is an inspiration to the Asian American bar and the Asian American community at large,” said Vincent Chang, Co-Chair of AABANY’s Judiciary Committee.

To read the full text of the press release go to: http://aabany.org/associations/6701/files/PR%20-%20AABANY%20-%20Randall%20Eng%20dinner_final.pdf

Congratulations to Justice Hinds-Radix and Justice Clark

AABANY joins the MBBA in congratulating Justice Hinds-Radix and Justice Clark on their elevation to the Appellate Division.

Dear MBBA Members and Supporters:

On behalf of the Officers and Directors of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association (“MBBA”), we are pleased to announce that the Honorable Sylvia Hinds-Radix has been appointed to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, Second Department.

It is our pleasure to have the opportunity to extend our sincere congratulations to Justice Hinds-Radix, who is currently the Administrative Judge for Civil Matters in Kings County and a member of the MBBA’s Board of Directors.  We are certain that she will bring to the bench a wealth of experience as a committed and active jurist and legal practitioner.  She has repeatedly demonstrated a strong commitment to the principles of fairness and justice, the improvement of the legal system, and the advancement of the members of our diverse community.   Justice Hinds-Radix’s record of achievement shows that she possesses all of the attributes necessary to succeed in this position and her reputation is widely respected by us all.

We also extend our congratulations to the Honorable Darcel Clark, Past President and Chair of the Board of the Black Bar Association of Bronx County, who has also been appointed to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, First Department.  Justice Clark has served a Supreme Court Justice in Bronx County since 2006.   She too has demonstrated a commendable record of achievement, public service, and dedication to the pursuit of justice duly warranting her appointment.

We offer our best wishes to both justices for their accomplishments and the continuation of their exemplary legal careers.

For additional information, please see Governor’s Andrew M. Cuomo’s press release at https://www.governor.ny.gov/press/10012012-appointments

Best regards,

R. Nadine Fontaine
MBBA President

Honorable Alvin M. Yearwood
Chair of the Board