March 30, 2023 – On behalf of the Asian American Judges Association of New York (AAJANY), we would first like to congratulate the seven candidates who have been nominated to fill the Chief Judge vacancy on the New York State Court of Appeals. Our state’s highest court is a Court for the people, inclusive of every race, ethnicity, gender, religion and more. Likewise, the process of selecting the six Associate Judges and Chief Judge that make up this Court must be thorough and all-inclusive. We wish to emphasize the importance of a fair and thoughtful selection process for any future Associate Judge appointment and express concern over the newly proposed Program Bill.
There has never been an Asian American judge on the Court of Appeals. To date, there have only been five Asian American judges on the Appellate Division, and only in the First and Second Departments. Since 1979, the Commission on Judicial Nomination has published 37 nomination lists for appointment to the Court of Appeals. An Asian American candidate did not appear on a list until the 25th vacancy in 2012. In the entire history of the Commission on Judicial Nomination, an Asian American has only appeared on the list on five occasions.
Jeh Johnson’s report on Equal Justice in the New York State Courts, dated October 1, 2020, highlighted the significant deficiencies in the representation and promotion of Asian American and Latino judges. There are no Asian American or Latino American candidates on the Commission’s current list for the Chief Judge vacancy. On Monday, March 27, 2023, new legislation was proposed which would significantly modify the well-established procedure for filling an Associate Judge vacancy on the Court of Appeals. Were the Governor to select a sitting Associate Judge from the Court of Appeals as the next Chief Judge, and then select from this same list of nominees to fill that vacancy, there will be no opportunity for the Governor to consider an Asian American for the Associate Judge position. In fact, there will be no opportunity for the Governor to consider any candidate of color. Diversity of candidates is paramount in the selection process of an Associate Judge to our highest court, and so we call for that process to be complete, fair, and inclusive of all.
As Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) jurists in the New York State court system we celebrated AAPI Heritage month in May for the first time in our Courts by participating in panels, co-hosting events, and acknowledging the many jurists that blazed the trail for us. We also recognized the work that remains for the Courts to be inclusive of the AAPI experience.
Our fairly young history in the New York State Judiciary began only 38 years ago with the appointment of the Hon. Randall Eng to the New York City Criminal Court bench in 1983. It continued with the historic elections of the Hon. Peter Tom and the Hon. Dorothy Chin Brandt to the New York County Civil Court in 1987. Judges Eng and Tom were the first Asian Americans appointed to the Appellate Division and even served simultaneously as Presiding Justice and Acting Presiding Justice in 2016. Equally historic was the election of the Hon. Anil Singh in 2002, the first elected South Asian judge, and his subsequent appointment to the Appellate Division in 2017. The Hon. Raja Rajeswari became the first South Asian judge appointed in New York in 2015.
While we are proud to celebrate our “firsts,” many of us remain the “only,” and the AAPI community remains underrepresented in the judiciary. Secretary Jeh Johnson highlighted this fact in his October 1, 2020 report on equal justice in the New York State Courts, where he noted that AAPIs comprise 8.5% of New Yorkers and only 2.6% of the judiciary. Currently, there are only 39 AAPI judges in all of New York State, and that is out of 1,227 jurists. Secretary Johnson also reported that in New York City, AAPI people comprise 14.1% of the population and only 6.3% of the judiciary, and that the AAPI community remains underrepresented among judges chosen by election. 37 of the 39 AAPI judges preside in New York City, and there are only two elected AAPI judges north of New York City. There has never been an AAPI judge elected in Brooklyn, Staten Island or the Bronx. Only two out of the 86 Court of Claims judges are AAPI, and there are no South Asian jurists. No AAPI jurists currently sit on our intermediate appellate courts in the Second, Third, and Fourth Departments. No AAPI has ever been appointed to the Court of Appeals.
Of the 63 supervisory or administrative judicial positions in New York State, there are only two AAPI jurists. None of the 12 Administrative Judges in New York City, 10 Administrative Judges outside New York City and 21 Supervising Judges outside of New York City are AAPI jurists. These statistics show that Asian American and Pacific Islanders lack a full voice in the administration of justice in New York State.
We call upon public officials, the Office of Court Administration, bar associations and judicial screening committees to place a greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion that recognizes and includes the AAPI community across all levels of the New York State Courts. We also call upon our own AAPI community to be more proactive in all of the different stages of the judicial appointment and electoral processes so that we can ensure that there is a multitude of qualified candidates available for consideration. We hope to look back in the near future at the progress we expect to achieve.
On May 20, the Historical Society of the New York Courts, the Asian American Judges Association of New York, and Meyer Suozzi English & Klein P.C. co-sponsored a panel discussion on the role of Asian Americans in the federal and state judiciary. The panelists of the event were Hon. Pamela K. Chen, U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of New York and AABANY member; Hon. Toko Serita, New York State Acting Supreme Court Justice, Presiding Judge of the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court, and AABANY member; and Hon. Anil C. Singh, Associate Justice of the Appellate Division, First Department. Hon. Lillian Wan, New York State Acting Supreme Court Justice and AABANY member, moderated the panel.
New York State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore opened the event with a few remarks, thanking the panelists and acknowledging their trailblazing careers as Asian-Americans. Chief Judge DiFiore also emphasized the importance of remembering AAPI history and the United States’ legacy of racial exclusion against Asians. She then turned the program over to Judge Randall T. Eng. Judge Eng, Of Counsel at Meyer Suozzi and former Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, welcomed the attendees and shared his experiences as the first Asian American appointed to the bench in New York.
Judge Wan then introduced the panelists for the event, opening the discussion with a brief presentation on AAPI history from Hong Yen Chang and the Chinese Exclusion Act to the present day. After the presentation, each of the panelists introduced themselves and shared their backgrounds and paths to becoming judges. Judge Wan began the panel discussion, asking the panelists about their experiences as Asian Americans at the times of their confirmations. Many of the panelists recounted how there were very few, if not any, Asian American judges when they were appointed. Judge Chen recalled how her appointment was facilitated by Obama’s attempts to diversify the federal bench, while Judge Serita recounted her experiences as the first Japanese American appointed to her court.
Judge Wan moved on to the reasons behind the underrepresentation of AAPIs in the state and federal judiciary. All of the panelists cited lack of political engagement, the lack of a pipeline, and the general tendency of Asian lawyers to seek employment at corporate law firms. Judge Chen also brought up cultural barriers, touching on how Asians tend not to promote themselves and do not seek help even when needed.
Judge Wan shifted the topic to Asian stereotypes and its effects on day-to-day legal practice. The judges all expressed how Asians are frequently lumped together, being viewed as a monolithic group. Judge Serita pointed out that the term “Asian” itself perpetuates invisibility, as it smothers the diverse experiences that individuals of different Asian cultures experience. Judge Chen also mentioned how women of color tend to face more microaggressions than men of color.
Judge Wan then asked the panelists if they had experienced any incidents of anti-Asian assault during the COVID pandemic. Judge Serita shared that during the height of the pandemic, she would wear a hat and sunglasses on the subway in order to hide her Asian identity. She also mentioned how women make up 70% of bias incident victims due to being stereotyped as meek and docile. Judge Serita also emphasized the importance of continuing the conversations about Asians and race in light of the rise in anti-Asian incidents. Judge Chen also shared a story, where an Asian female jury member had to be excused from jury duty because she feared being assaulted on the subway commute to the courthouse.
Judge Wan then directed the conversation towards the role of diversity in the judiciary. All the judges emphasized the importance of having a judiciary that reflects the diversity of the people it serves. Judge Chen also cited Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion in the Schuette v. Coalition case, pointing out how race does matter in the judiciary due to the long history of minorities being excluded in the United States.
Judge Wan then asked the panelists their thoughts on building a pipeline for Asians to enter the judiciary. All the judges expressed how important it was to reach out to the community to inspire young people to consider a public service career. Judge Chen identified a number of internships and programs for students aspiring to become judges while also noting how increasing Asian political representation in federal and state positions would afford aspiring AAPI lawyers the support needed to get through the confirmation process. Judge Chen also mentioned the role of bar associations like AABANY and the South Asian Bar Association of New York in sponsoring candidates for the bench. Judge Serita finished by encouraging young lawyers to be more proactive and to overcome Asian cultural humility.
Judge Wan moved to the topic of judicial screening panels, asking the judges their thoughts on the role of diversity on the panels. All the judges agreed on the vital role of diversity on screening panels. Judge Serita recounted one instance where an Asian woman being reviewed by the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys was given a low qualification score, due, in part, to the fact that only one out of the 30 committee members was Asian.
To close the panel, Judge Wan asked the judges if they had any advice to give to young attorneys aspiring to the bench. Judge Chen and Judge Serita both encouraged the attendees to enjoy their work, be passionate about it, but also, to not plan their careers rigidly around becoming a judge. All the judges also expressed the importance of flexibility and of keeping options open.
At the end of the event, Judge Eng shared photographs and a newspaper clipping documenting his long and distinguished career in the judiciary. Judge Wan then thanked the panelists for their time and the attendees for coming to the event.
Congratulations to Judge Pamela Chen, U.S. District Court Judge at the Eastern District of New York, on being honored by the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association and the Asian American Judges Association of New York during an Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Celebration held at the Brooklyn Bar Association building at 123 Remsen Street in downtown Brooklyn on Monday, May 13. We were joined by many State and Federal Court judges who came out to celebrate with Judge Chen. We even had a lion dance, which may have been the first time this Chinese tradition was observed at the Brooklyn Bar Association.
In 2012, President Obama nominated Judge Chen to serve as a Federal District Court Judge in the Eastern District of New York. The United States Senate confirmed her nomination on March 4, 2013, and she became the first Chinese-American female Article III judge outside of California and the second-ever Chinese-American female federal judge in U.S. history, continuing to add to the rich legacy of the Second Circuit and New York State.
As AABANY Executive Director Yang Chen Stated: “During May, we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and it is a most fitting tribute that we recognize and honor a distinguished jurist like Judge Chen, who has been a champion of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Judge Chen has been an active AABANY member for many years, and we proudly followed Judge Chen’s path to the bench and her rise over the years, and congratulate her on this well-deserved honor.”
Please join AABANY in congratulating Judge Pamela Chen.