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.

AABANY Officer Margaret Ling Quoted in New York Law Journal Article about Women in the Law

Margaret Ling, AABANY’s Officer, Director of Development, and founder and co-chair of the Real Estate Committee, was featured in a New York Law Journal article about the New York State Bar Association’s Women in Law panel held on January 26, 2021.

About midway through a New York State Bar Association panel on the challenges of retaining and advancing women attorneys, Margaret Ling, a veteran real estate lawyer, told the story of how she’d once toiled for months on an important matter only to be told by her male superior before a vital, well-attended matter meeting that “you are to sit there and you are to say nothing.”

Read more here (subscription is required).

AABANY Celebrates 2020 Annual Dinner with More Than 800 Attendees

On Wednesday, February 26, 2020, AABANY hosted its 2020 Annual Dinner with the theme “Stronger Together: Unity in Diversity” at Cipriani Wall Street. The dinner attracted over 800 attorneys, judges, prosecutors, in-house counsel, government officials, and dignitaries and sponsorships from more than 60 law firms and corporations.

This year AABANY was proud to honor:

Hon. Sri Srinivasan, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, with the Public Interest Leadership Award.

Alan Tse, Global Chief Legal Officer, Jones Lang LaSalle, Inc., with the Corporate Leadership Award

Yen Chu, Chief Legal Officer, Equinox Holdings, Inc., with the Women’s Leadership Award

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP with the Law Firm Diversity Award

To read more about our extraordinary honorees, read the press release here.

This year, Spectrum NY1 News Anchor Vivian Lee served as MC and was joined on stage by Immediate Past President James Cho. 

James presented each of the honorees with special gifts from AABANY. Noting that Alan Tse was considered by his peers to be “The Closer,” James presented him with a bottle of McCallan, a nod to Attorney Harvey Specter from “Suits,” another well-known “Closer.” However, because Alan had to fly back to Chicago, the full-size bottle was replaced with a miniature size, with a ziploc bag that will ensure the bottle gets through security. (We have a feeling that the bottle was consumed well before Alan made it to the airport.)

For Yen Chu, James presented her with a monogrammed workout head towel for her next session at one of Equinox’s many gyms. That is one way to make sure that AABANY is “top of mind” for Yen in the days to come. Finally, for Chief Judge Srinivasan, we figured that as a jurist, he can never have too many robes, so James presented him a wizard’s robe, bearing his name above the Gryffindor crest. Although we doubt we will see Chief Judge Srinivasan wearing that robe on the bench any time soon, we can imagine him donning the robe in chambers, especially on those occasions where he may need to work some judicial wizardry to decide the most difficult cases.

In addition, we were also pleased to present the 2019 class of Don H. Liu Scholars: Grace Cho, Raymond Magsaysay, and Andrew Tran. To read more about the Don H. Liu Scholars, see our press release here.

Congratulations also to the Pro Bono and Community Service Committee. The Pro Bono Clinic was recognized with the New York State Bar Association Bar Leaders Innovation Award. NYSBA President Hank Greenberg attended the Annual Dinner to present the award. To read more about the award, see our press release here.

We thank all of the AABANY Annual Dinner Planning Committee members and volunteers for their hard work in making this year’s celebration a huge success.

We extend sincere thanks to all of our sponsors. Their generous sponsorships make it possible for us to pursue our mission to advance the interests of the Asian Pacific American (APA) legal community and the communities we serve and support our many activities and signature events throughout the year.

Lastly, we thank everyone that attended the 2020 Annual Dinner and celebrated with us.

Thanks to Corky Lee for the photos in this blog post. More photos to come. Stay tuned!

AABANY Visits the High School of American Studies

On October 21, AABANY Executive Director Yang Chen and Board Director Chris Kwok visited the High School of American Studies on the campus of Lehman College of the City University of New York, in the Bronx. The trip was arranged through Jonathan Halabi, a teacher at the school, and was done as part of the New York State Bar Association’s request to bar leaders to visit local high schools to speak about the Constitution and Citizenship as part of this year’s Constitution Day, which was marked on September 17.

Mr. Halabi gave Chris and Yang a tour of the school, which has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the number 6 high school in New York. He also introduced Chris and Yang to a number of the school’s faculty. Chris and Yang spoke to two classes of seniors about Korematsu v. United States to teach about the Constitution and Citizenship. Both classes had heard the name Korematsu and knew the basic facts and context of the case. Chris and Yang provided additional details about how Fred Korematsu fought for justice and ultimately had his wrongful conviction overturned. The students engaged Chris and Yang in thoughtful and well-informed discussion about Korematsu’s case and how it relates to the Constitution, citizenship and current issues facing immigrants and the nation.

The visit concluded with Chris and Yang being called into the principal’s office to meet with the school’s principal, Alessandro Weiss. Principal Weiss thanked Chris and Yang for coming in and speaking with the students. They talked about the possibility of returning to the High School of American Studies for future visits on other topics of interest to the students. AABANY looks forward to meeting again with teachers and students at the High School of Asian Studies, and we thank the school for its warm hospitality on the occasion of this first visit. (Thanks to Mr. Halabi for the photos.)

Congratulations to Joon Kim on Receiving the Hon. George Bundy Smith Pioneer Award

On Thursday, May 23, 2019, Joon Kim, Partner at Cleary Gottlieb and AABANY member, was presented with the Hon. George Bundy Smith Pioneer Award at the New York State Bar Association’s “Smooth Moves: Career Strategies for Attorneys of Color” program at Lincoln Center. The Hon. George Bundy Smith Pioneer Award recognizes lawyers who demonstrate commitment to legal excellence, community service and mentoring. The program was sponsored by the Commercial and Federal Litigation Section of the New York State Bar Association.

Joon Kim has led a distinguished career over two decades at high levels of government and in private practice at Cleary Gottlieb, personally trying over a dozen federal jury trials and actively participating in dozens more. He is also a regular speaker and panelist at leading industry conferences on criminal and regulatory matters.

Please join AABANY in congratulating Joon Kim for this well-deserved award and honor.

Photo courtesy of Cleary Gottlieb. Used with permission.

Governor Cuomo Announces First-in-the-Nation State Partnership with National Organizations to Expand Successful Pro Bono Clemency Initiative

For Immediate Release
8/21/2017

                                                                    Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

State Partners with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and Other Organizations to Expand Capacity to Provide Clemency Applicants with Pro Bono Legal Assistance

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced a first-in-the-nation partnership between a state and a coalition of legal organizations to expand New York’s pro bono clemency program.

This partnership with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, with support from the Foundation for Criminal Justice, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and other organizations is modeled after a successful federal program that has since been discontinued since the Trump administration. This new partnership greatly expands the Governor’s clemency initiative founded in 2015 that provided pro bono clemency petition services to individuals with criminal records or incarcerated in state prison.

“These nationally recognized organizations have already proven successful in helping incarcerated individuals get access to the resources they need to apply for clemency, make the case for their rehabilitation and have the opportunity to contribute to and re-enter society,” Governor Cuomo said. “I’m proud to partner with them to expand the work of this administration and its partners and take one more step toward a more just, more fair and morecompassionate New York for all.”

By engaging more pro bono lawyers, this partnership will provide a steady supply of high-quality clemency applications for the Governor’s Counsel’s Office to review. The NACDL will work with the Executive Clemency Bureau to identify those deserving of a second chance, and make clemency a more accessible and tangible reality in New York.

The Governor launched his clemency review initiative in 2015 with the assistance of the New York City Bar Association, the New York County Lawyers Association, the New York State Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and other state organizations. Governor Cuomo engages in a careful, holistic review of clemency applications and the assistance that these volunteer attorneys provide has resulted in an increase in the number of strong petitions for the Governor to review. Three individuals represented by pro bono counsel through the program were granted clemency in 2016.

Approximately 1,700 potential applicants for clemency have identified under this program and this new partnership with New York will increase the number of volunteer attorneys in the initiative to assist more applicants in need.

Under the now-defunct federal program, which was launched by the Obama Administration in 2014, these organizations trained nearly 4,000 volunteer lawyers from diverse practice backgrounds and completed screening of the more than 36,000 federal prisoners who requested volunteer assistance.

For more information about the NACDL/FAMM State Clemency Project, including how to sign up to volunteer, visit the project website, https://stateclemency.org.

Although individuals may apply for clemency without the assistance of an attorney, assistance from a pro bono attorney will enhance the quality of an inmate’s application and present his or her best case to the Governor.

Since 2011, Governor Cuomo has commuted the sentences of 10 individuals, and granted pardons to 114 individuals as a part of an ambitious clemency agenda that seeks to identify individuals demonstrating evidence of rehabilitation and self-development amounting to a true change in character or circumstance since incarceration, to help ensure that clemency is a more accessible and tangible reality. He used his pardon power to provide first in the nation relief for New Yorkers convicted of a misdemeanor or non-violent felony at 16 or 17 years old who have been crime-free for ten years, issuing the first conditional pardons to more than 100 New Yorkers in December 2016.

Individuals interested in applying for clemency should visit Governor Cuomo’s clemency website,www.ny.gov/clemency. The website is a central resource for those seeking to learn more about clemency, eligibility requirements, and the application process, including submitting application materials electronically. Family members and friends of individuals serving prison sentences are encouraged to visit the website and apply for clemency on behalf of their family member or friend.
 
Norman Reimer, Executive Director of NACDL said, “NACDL is proud to work with its partners, the Foundation for Criminal Justice (FCJ) and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), in a coordinated effort to recruit, train, and support pro bono counsel for all prisoner applicants for clemency. We salute Governor Cuomo and his administration for recognizing that people are capable of redemption and rehabilitation, and may have earned a fresh start in life.”

Bret Parker, Executive Director of the New York City Bar Association, said, “The New York City Bar Association looks forward to continuing its work with the Governor’s office on this worthy initiative that treats the incarcerated as individuals who in many cases deserve a second chance. We welcome NACDL’s participation in streamlining the process for all involved.”

Jennifer L. Van Ort, the Executive Director of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said, “By working with our colleagues in state government, we can more effectively offer pro bono legal assistance to individuals who are incarcerated in New York prisons. This partnership is a welcome expansion to the existing project, as it will bring more lawyers together with applicants without the resources to pay for representation. With more training, mentoring, and electronic access to client materials, this partnership will help our members better represent reformed and rehabilitated applicants in the State’s process to apply for clemency. I thank the Governor for expanding this successful program and for being a staunch ally of incarcerated New Yorkers.”
 
David Loftis, Attorney-In-Charge of Post-Conviction and Forensic Litigation at the Legal Aid Society said, “We have been pleased to work with the Governor’s office on clemency cases. In particular, we have been gratified that, over the past year, the Governor has commuted the sentences of worthy applicants represented by The Legal Aid Society and our pro bono partners. We were excited to learn that NACDL will be joining the clemency effort, and The Legal Aid Society looks forward to partnering with them to bring candidates deserving a second chance to the Governor’s attention.”

ASIAN AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION OF NEW YORK HONORED WITH BAR LEADERS INNOVATION AWARD FROM NEW YORK STATE BAR ASSOCIATION

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 30, 2017

Contact: Yang Chen, Executive Director

(212) 332-2478

New York – January 30, 2017 – The Asian American Bar Association
of New York (“AABANY”) is proud to announce that it was honored with a 2016 Bar
Leaders Innovation Award for its Seventh Annual Fall Conference: Speak Up | Rise Up |
Lift Up. The award was bestowed
by the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA), Committee for Bar Leaders of New
York State, at the NYSBA Annual Meeting held at the Midtown Hilton in
Manhattan, during the final day of the conference on January 27.

According to NYSBA, “the award is presented in statewide
recognition of local, minority, ethnic, specialty, special purpose bar
associations, and the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York for outstanding
service to the public and the profession through innovative projects and programs
that serve to enhance public understanding of the law, advance and promote the
work of the legal profession, and support the best interests of the public.”
AABANY received its honor in the category of medium-sized bar associations (500-1,999
members). Other honorees included the Association of Black Women Attorneys, the
Dominican Bar Association, the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, the Women’s
Bar Association of the State of New York, and the Caribbean Attorneys Network.

AABANY’s Seventh Annual Fall Conference took place on September 24,
2016 at the New York offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
LLP. As a primarily volunteer-driven organization with about 1,100
members, the 2016 Annual Fall Conference attracted more than 400 attendees. The
Conference offered 19 separate CLE and non-CLE programs, the second annual
Diversity Career Fair & Expo, Pitch Sessions, Judiciary Bootcamp and Group
Mentoring. Building on past successes, AABANY tackled each aspect of this
year’s conference with an innovative approach and an eye towards impact. The
Fall Conference accomplished many objectives: giving important updates on the
hottest legal trends, establishing a leadership pipeline to both the top of
AABANY’s organization and the top of the profession, providing a forum for
meaningful business and personal connections to be made, and exposing
participants to different career options in New York.

“On behalf of AABANY, we
thank NYSBA’s Committee for Bar Leaders of New York State for this important
award and its recognition of our innovative efforts to engage our membership and
the larger legal community to which it belongs,” said AABANY
President-elect Dwight Yoo, Partner at Skadden, Arps. “Organizing and
presenting this conference for the seventh consecutive year called upon
tremendous team work among AABANY’s leaders, members and supporters. This award
was truly earned by the talents and energies of all who participated in it. We
are humbled and pleased to receive this honor.” 

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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