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.

Former AABANY Member Daniel M. Chung Writes Op-Ed Emphasizing Need for New Santa Clara County District Attorney

On April 19, 2021, San Jose Inside published an op-ed titled “Santa Clara County Deserves a New District Attorney” by Daniel M. Chung, formerly with the Bronx DA’s office and was an AABANY member. Daniel currently works as a Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney and in the op-ed, he voices the need for a new District Attorney in Santa Clara County who will celebrate the diversity of the community and speak out against injustice.

As an Asian-American prosecutor in Santa Clara County, Daniel felt that he needed to speak out against anti-Asian violence at a time when many local community leaders stayed silent. He published an op-ed in the Mercury News on February 14, 2021, about the recent surge of anti-Asian violence and the need for balanced criminal justice reforms to protect victims and communities. In response to the publication, Daniel’s boss, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, had Daniel appear at a hearing to answer allegations that he had used his official title without authorization, and reassigned him twice in two days with no customary notice or explanation. Daniel attributes DA Rosen’s actions to his boss’ political aspirations and explains that rather than demonstrating commitment to racial justice and the Asian community in Santa Clara County, DA Rosen chose to stay silent. Daniel stresses the importance of a new District Attorney in Santa Clara County:

Santa Clara County deserves a DA who will be a leader—not a bandwagoner—in speaking out against injustice to Asian Americans and others. A DA who will demand unwavering loyalty to the law and justice and not to himself. A DA who will prioritize public safety and not promote a culture of fear and retaliation. A DA who will respect free speech, say what he means, and mean what he says. Santa Clara County deserves a DA who will celebrate the rich diversity of our community and protect us—not for personal or political gain, but because it is the right thing to do.

To read the full op-ed, click here.

In the News: Judge James Cho and President Terry Shen in NYLJ

AABANY President Terry Shen was quoted in a New York Law Journal article published on April 6, 2021 titled “Former Federal Prosecutor Named US Magistrate Judge in Brooklyn.” The article highlights AABANY Past President James Cho, who was sworn in on Monday, April 5 as the Eastern District of New York’s newest magistrate judge and the district’s first Korean American judge. 

In the article, Terry Shen was quoted praising the appointment as “another important step” toward more diversity on the bench. Speaking more about Judge Cho, Terry said: “In his time as president of AABANY, Judge Cho displayed a combination of insightful leadership, work ethic, and commitment to public service that will undoubtedly equip him to be an exceptional federal judge. We congratulate Mr. Cho on this outstanding achievement.” 

To read the full article on Law.com, please click here (subscription may be required).

AABANY Co-Sponsors Virtual Fireside Chat with Prominent Asian American Judges on January 26, 2021

On January 26, 2021, AABANY co-sponsored a virtual fireside chat hosted by the New York City Bar entitled, “Our Story: Asian American Judges Share Their Path to the Bench, and Thoughts on Diversity and of the Future.” Prominent speakers included:

  • Hon. Shahabudeen Ally, Supervising Judge, New York County Civil Court;
  • Hon. Jeffrey K. Oing, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department and AABANY member;
  • Hon. Ushir Pandit-Durant, New York State Supreme Court, Queens County; and
  • Hon. Lillian Wan, New York State Supreme Court, Kings County and AABANY member.

Serving as moderator, Judge Ally led the discussion on each jurist’s path to the bench, challenges faced in their paths regarding issues of diversity and inclusion, and their thoughts on the inclusion of more Asian Americans in the future of the court system. 

For Justices Oing, Pandit-Durant, and Wan, they did not anticipate becoming jurists when they were in law school. Justice Pandit-Durant had previously served at the Queens Assistant District Attorneys Office for over 20 years, and Justice Wan had been a litigator at the Administration for Children’s Services for 9 years and later as a court attorney referee at Surrogates Court. They became interested in joining the bench after their experiences of appearing before judges everyday and learning more about the judicial appointment process. Speaking about the path to the bench, the speakers emphasized the importance of getting outside their own comfort zone and attending events to get their names out there. You want people to recognize you as someone who would be able to do the job, said Justice Pandit-Durant. “They’re not going to know you until they want to know you.”

Speaking on diversity in the court system, the speakers agreed that compared to the past, we are moving in the right direction. There are now many more women and diverse women on the bench. In the state of New York, there are currently 39 judges of Asian American descent. Justice Wan said, “There is more respect and acceptance of the outcome if we have a bench that looks like the community they serve. Diversity matters.”

In the final segment of the fireside chat, Judge Ally asked the speakers: “What can we do as a population to engage the next generation?” Justice Wan spoke about the importance of mentorships. Many people do not realize that practically anyone with the right qualifications can become a judge, and it is necessary for mentors to help demystify the process. Speakers also discussed how students can be inspired by looking at the diversity of the bench and the progress that has already been made. The jurists praised the 80+ audience members for joining their chat and asking great questions, and concluded with the hope that the number of judges of Asian American descent in New York will continue to increase.

AABANY’s Judiciary Committee has a mission to do just that: increase the number of judges of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent in New York. To learn more about the Judiciary Committee, read this blog post about the March 19 membership mixer featuring that Committee or visit this page on the AABANY website.

NAPABA | Statement on Executive Orders

For Immediate Release: Date: January 21, 2021

Contact: Priya Purandare, Executive Director

Reversing the Muslim Ban, Restoring DACA, and Promoting Diversity

WASHINGTON—The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) supports the efforts by President Biden to repeal the Muslim Ban, to preserve Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion—values important to NAPABA, as outlined in the Executive Orders he signed yesterday.

“We applaud President Biden’s initial executive orders that specifically address many of the key issues that NAPABA cares about and has been advocating on,” said A. B. Cruz III, president of NAPABA. “We are encouraged by the Administration’s steps today to promote religious tolerance by reversing the Muslim Ban, fortify the DACA program to better protect DREAMers, and commit to promoting racial equity for all Americans. We look forward to working with the new administration on policies that meaningfully support and advance our community.”

NAPABA and our affiliated bar associations opposed the Muslim Ban, including filing amicus briefs in the Supreme Court. NAPABA supports the DACA program and efforts to find a bipartisan solution for the status of the undocumented in the country.

NAPABA congratulates President Biden and Vice President Harris on their historic inauguration.

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The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) represents the interests of approximately 50,000 legal professionals and nearly 90 national, state, and local Asian Pacific American bar associations. NAPABA is a leader in addressing civil rights issues confronting Asian Pacific American communities. Through its national network, NAPABA provides a strong voice for increased diversity in government and the judiciary on the local, state, and federal levels, advocates for equal opportunity in the workplace, works to eliminate hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiment, and promotes the professional development of people of color in the legal profession.

The New York City Bar Association Releases Report “The Diversity Gap: Black and Latinx Representation Disparities in the Legal Pipeline” and Follow-Up Program

The New York City Bar Association announced that their report The Diversity Gap: Black and Latinx Representation Disparities in the Legal Pipeline has been released with overwhelming support from the legal community. To determine the effectiveness of pipeline programs for Black and Latinx students who seek to enter the legal profession, they polled over 800 students from the 15 New York State Law Schools. They thank Ashley Bernal, Professor, York College and author of the report, and The New York Community Trust for funding this important work.

You can read their press release here.

Additionally, they will be hosting a two-part panel presentation entitled, “The Diversity Gap: Black and Latinx Representation Disparities in the Legal Pipeline.”  Details below:

Part I: Pipeline Leaders

Part II: Pipeline Participants

To register for any of the events, please click on the registration link (you will need to create a free account if you are not a city bar member) or email Customer Relations at customerrelations@nycbar.org. The series is free for everyone.

NAPABA Statement on the Yale Affirmative Action Case

For Immediate Release: August 18, 2020

Contact: Priya Purandare, Executive Director
Email: ppurandare@napaba.org

WASHINGTON—Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice asserted that Yale University had violated federal civil rights law against Asian American and white applicants by using race as a determinative factor in its undergraduate admissions process. NAPABA strongly disapproves of any form of racial discrimination, including in college admissions. The organization understands the importance of diversity in education, and that race is one of the many factors in a holistic admissions process as established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“While we continue to review information on the Department of Justice’s findings to fully evaluate the Yale University case, diversity remains a critical and compelling interest for universities to achieve,” said Bonnie Lee Wolf, president of NAPABA. “NAPABA is in support of race-conscious standards as a part of a holistic admissions process. We also support continuing efforts by colleges and universities to improve their admissions processes, including their work to recognize and address implicit bias. Our support of these principles has included filing of amicus briefs in the seminal cases of Grutter v. Bollinger and Fisher v. University of Texas in support of the universities and the importance of diversity. NAPABA will closely monitor the alleged claims against Yale University.”

Two years ago, NAPABA supported the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts’ ruling that upheld the use of race conscious admissions in Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard. In 2015, NAPABA issued an organizational statement in support of Affirmative Action and that the policy is necessary to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in education.

NYC Bar Offers Scholarship Opportunity for Surrogate’s Court Mediation Training

The City Bar and Community Mediation Services is now offering a limited number of scholarships to the upcoming Surrogate’s Court Mediation Training – 16-Hour Online Training. The scholarships are intended to encourage a more diverse group of attorneys to consider adding Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) to their practices. This program is approved under Part 146 of the Rules of the Chief Administrative Judge and satisfies the training requirements of many local court ADR panels. 

Attorneys are required to attend at all four days of the program, which will run virtually on the following dates: September 15, 17, 22 & 24, 2020 from 9 am – 1 pm on each day.

Interested candidates should send their résumé and an optional statement of interest, to Paula Mukwaya at diversity@nycbar.org by the evening of Monday, August 31st.  

For more information about this Surrogate’s Court Mediation Training, please click here.

AABANY Hosts Panel on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in the Workplace and Beyond

On July 28, 2020, the Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) hosted an event addressing diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workplace and beyond. Moderated by Margaret Ling, Director of Business Development and Co-Chair of the Real Estate Committee at AABANY, the panel featured: William H. Ng, Shareholder at Littler Mendelson and former Co-Chair of the Labor & Employment Law Committee of AABANY; Donna Dozier Gordon, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at USTA; Asker A. Saeed, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant and Principal at Saeed Consulting; Sean Bacchus, CEO and Founder of the Executive Diversity and Inclusion Council; and Prof. Meredith R. Miller, President of the Network of Bar Leaders. 

The program began with an acknowledgment of Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon who recently passed away. Margaret urged the participants to follow the Congressman’s famous words, to get in “good trouble,” as they work to make their communities more equitable and representative.

Will Ng opened by recounting his experience with diversity and inclusion while working in large law firms. He noted that law firms need to have support from management and leadership in order to succeed in creating a more diverse workplace. He also stressed that recruitment was not the issue, but rather, retaining diverse, younger talent.

Asker Saeed followed by outlining steps that may help large law firms advance their diversity and inclusion efforts. First, law firms should think about their reason for promoting diversity: not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also better for business. Firms should hire the best people, and the best attorneys are not only one gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality. Second, firms should examine their systems and procedures, particularly in lateral hiring and promotions. For example, when partners are asked to recommend people to a position, they are likely going to recommend individuals who look like them or remind them of themselves, thus perpetuating the status quo that partners should be white, male, straight, etc.. Thirdly, firms should hire and pay someone to be in charge of diversity and inclusion for greater accountability, as well as create a specific budget for diversity and inclusion initiatives. Finally, law firms should create more opportunities for all people to prove their abilities and advance in the organization.

Meredith R. Miller added that, in 2016, the American Bar Association identified discrimination as professional misconduct. She emphasized that firms should not focus on not discriminating, but rather being anti-discrimination and anti-racist. She also urged bar associations to build pipelines for minority communities in the legal field.

Donna Gordon examined the connection between diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the Black Lives Matter movement. Due to the nation’s changing landscape, especially after the Black Lives Matter movement, the success of a firm will depend on its ability to hire and retain diverse talent. Black Lives Matter has reignited corporate interest in diversity and inclusion. However, despite the long history of these diversity initiatives, African Americans still do not experience as much advancement in the workplace. Donna urged participants to focus on addressing the gaps in the African American talent pipeline by tapping into wider networks.

Finally, Sean Bacchus stressed that organizations must be recognized for their progress and held accountable for the work they are not engaging in. Mentorship and sponsorship from senior leaders towards minorities are very important, especially given the prevalence of nepotism in large firms. Sean also urged firms to not only target Ivy League students during recruitment but also look at the CUNY system.

We thank Margaret Ling for organizing and moderating the successful event, and the panelists for offering their valuable insights. Attendees received 1.0 credits in the diversity, inclusion, and elimination of bias requirement, and 0.5 credits in the ethics requirement. To view a recording of the program, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxb4uylxkMQ or click the image above.