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.

NAPABA Congratulates Rob Bonta on Nomination as California Attorney General

For Immediate Release: Date: March 18, 2021

Contact: Priya Purandare, Executive Director

WASHINGTON – The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) celebrates the nomination of California Assemblymember Rob Bonta to be the state’s next attorney general. Bonta will be the first Filipino American to hold the position. In 2015, Bonta received NAPABA’s prestigious Daniel K. Inouye Trailblazer Award for his outstanding achievements, commitment, and leadership in paving the way for the advancement of other Asian Pacific American attorneys.

“We congratulate Assemblymember Rob Bonta on his historic nomination and thank Governor Newsom for his selection. Attorney General Designate Bonta embodies the best of our community,” said A.B. Cruz III, president of NAPABA. “The son of AAPI civil rights activists, Attorney General Designate Bonta has spent his career fighting for justice and representation for people of color. As the first Filipino assemblymember in California, Attorney General Designate Bonta passed major reforms, including strengthening hate crime laws to protect communities like ours. With the increasing prevalence of hate incidents against AAPIs, we are confident that Attorney General Designate Bonta will ensure that these disturbing incidences are quickly investigated and prosecuted.”

Bonta has served extensively in the public sector. Prior to being elected as assemblymember, he was Deputy City Attorney of San Francisco. Bonta clerked for Judge Alvin Thompson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. He is a graduate of Yale University, Oxford University and Yale Law School.

We thank Governor Newsom for his nomination.

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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 of the federal and state judiciaries, 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.

AABANY Congratulates Kenneth Chin as Recipient of the NYSBA 2020 Diversity Trailblazer Award

AABANY congratulates Kenneth Chin on being presented with the New York State Bar Association’s Diversity Trailblazer Award at the John E. Higgins, Esq. Diversity Trailblazer Award Ceremony on Jan. 27, 2020 at the New York Hilton Midtown. Ken is a Partner and the Banking and Finance Chair at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP and longstanding member of AABANY. The award recognizes Ken for his transformative work to promote and achieve diversity and inclusion at his firm and in New York’s Asian American community.

Read our full press release here.

AABANY Congratulates Hon. Randall T. Eng

Congratulations to Hon. Randall T. Eng, retired Presiding Justice of the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department, on receiving the Charles W. Froessel Award from Queens County Bar Association at its Annual Dinner held on May 2 at Terrace on the Park in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This award celebrates Justice Eng’s achievements as a legal professional and honors his contributions to the Queens County Bar Association.

Justice Eng was born in Guangzhou, China, and was raised in New York City. He received a Juris Doctor degree from St. John’s University School of Law in 1972. Upon graduating from law school, Justice Eng served as an assistant district attorney in Queens. In 1983, Justice Eng was appointed to the Criminal Court of the City of New York by Mayor Edward I. Koch. In 1988, Justice Eng was appointed to serve as an Acting Justice of New York State Supreme Court. In 1990, Justice Eng was elected to stay in the position and was re-elected in 2004. Between 2007 and 2008, Justice Eng was appointed to serve a short term as Administrative Judge of the Criminal Term of Queens County Supreme Court, and he served in this role until he was elevated to the Appellate Division in 2008. In 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed Justice Eng to lead the Second Department as the presiding justice, where he oversaw one of the busiest judicial departments in the country. This appointment made Justice Eng the first Asian American to serve as a presiding justice in New York State. Justice Eng retired from the bench and joined Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. as Of Counsel in January 2018.

Over his long and prolific legal career, Justice Eng has received numerous honors, including AABANY’s Norman Lau Kee Trailblazer Award in 2017, OCA-NY Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, and the Daniel K. Inouye Trailblazer Award in 2016, the highest honor bestowed by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, of which AABANY is an affiliate.

As AABANY President Brian Song stated: “AABANY congratulates Justice Eng on receiving the Charles W. Froessel Award from the Queens County Bar Association,” states AABANY President Brian Song, “It is yet another well-deserved recognition of Justice Eng’s achievements as a prominent jurist who has led the way for generations of attorneys and judges to follow his example. During May, when we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, it is a most fitting tribute that we recognize and honor the milestones and achievements of role models like Justice Randall Eng. None of us would be here today were it not for Justice Eng and other APA judges and lawyers who led the way.”

Please join AABANY in congratulating Hon. Randall T. Eng .

Congratulations to Hon. Randall Eng, Recipient of the OCA-NY Lifetime Achievement Award

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The Hon. Randall Eng (Ret.), New York state’s first Asian American Presiding Justice, was honored with the OCA-NY Lifetime Achievement Award on Friday, September 28, at OCA-NY’s 42nd Annual Community Service & Leadership Awards Gala. Justice Eng has dedicated himself to public service for over three decades in a variety of positions. He served as the first Asian American Assistant District Attorney in his hometown of Queens County (1973-1980), the Deputy Inspector General of New York City (1980-1981), and also the Inspector General of New York City (1981-1983). In 2016, Judge Eng was awarded NAPABA’s highest honor, the Daniel K. Inouye Trailblazer Award, and in 2017, he received AABANY’s Norman Lau Kee Trailblazer Award. The OCA-NY Lifetime Achievement Award is yet another well-earned recognition of both his contributions to New York State and the Asian American attorney community. Please join AABANY in congratulating Justice Eng on this well-deserved award and honor.

A Tribute to a Chinatown Icon | New York Law Journal

A Tribute to a Chinatown Icon | New York Law Journal

Bereavement Notice: Norman Lau Kee

AABANY is saddened by the news of the passing of Norman Lau Kee. He was a true pioneer in the Asian American legal profession, being among the first Chinese American lawyers to serve the community in New York’s Chinatown. He also served and led the community through his involvement with the Chinatown YMCA, the Chinese-American Planning Council and the US Asia Institute. AABANY named its Trailblazer Award, presented at the Fall Conference, after Norman Lau Kee. His son Glenn is a Past President of AABANY and was the first Asian American President of the New York State Bar Association.

We send our condolences to Glenn and the Lau Kee family. Below are further details about the wake and giving donations in lieu of flowers.

It is with sadness that the Lau Kee family announces the passing away of Norman Lau Kee on November, 9, 2017.  Mr. Kee was a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Fordham University School of Law, and served in the US Navy.  He began the practice of law in 1956 as the third Chinese-American lawyer to practice in Chinatown.   A great civic leader, Mr. Kee also served as Chairman of the Federal Advisory Commission to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, on the New York City Commission of Human Rights, and on the boards of several community organizations.  He helped to found the Chinatown YMCA and the US Asia Institute, and was the recipient of numerous civic awards.   He was also a sailor, skier and opera lover.

Norman Lau Kee is survived by his wife, Esther; children Glenn, Deborah, Laura Ann, Gail, Valerie; eight grandchildren and one great grandchild.  The wake will be held in New York on November 27, 2017, 3:00 pm at Ng Fook Funeral home at 36 Mulberry Street, New York, NY.  A memorial event will held in Washington DC on December 7th at the US Asia Institute at 6:00 pm.  The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the New York Chinatown YMCA (contactglaukee@laukeelaw.com) or to the US Asia Institute in Washington DC (contact mary.sue.bissell@usasiainstitute.org).

Asian American Bar Association of New York and South Asian Bar Association of New York Congratulate Sanket Bulsara on his Appointment as U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of New York

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

August 30, 2017

Contact: Yang Chen, Executive Director

(212) 332-2478

NEW YORK — August 30, 2017. The Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) and the South Asian Bar Association of New York (SABANY) applaud the Honorable Sanket J. Bulsara on his historic appointment to serve as a United States Magistrate Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Asian Pacific Americans are significantly under-represented in the federal judiciary, including in New York.  Upon his appointment, Judge Bulsara became the first South Asian American to serve as a judge within the Second Circuit.

Judge Bulsara was born in the Bronx but has been a resident and an active community member of Queens, where his parents first lived upon immigrating to the United States from India.  He began his legal career by serving as a law clerk for the Honorable John G. Koeltl of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Judge Bulsara then worked as an associate at the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olsen LLP in Los Angeles, California, before returning to New York in 2004, where he worked as a Manager of Planning and Data Analysis for the New York City Department of Education.

In 2005, Judge Bulsara joined the law firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP as an associate and was elevated to partner in 2012, becoming the first Asian Pacific American litigation partner in the firm’s New York office.  At WilmerHale, he developed a trial-centered practice, while also developing the firm’s pro bono practice.  His trial experience included a secondment from 2007 to 2008, when he worked as a Special Assistant District Attorney in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, for which he received an Outstanding Service Award.

Prior to his appointment, he worked at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, serving as the Acting General Counsel and the Deputy General Counsel for Appellate Litigation, Adjudication and Enforcement.

“AABANY congratulates Judge Bulsara on his appointment and commends the Eastern District of New York for not only appointing a highly qualified candidate to this important position but also recognizing a continuing commitment to a bench reflecting the diversity of the general population,” states AABANY President Dwight Yoo. “Judge Bulsara follows in the path blazed by Judge Go, Judge Kuo, Judge Matsumoto and Judge Chen in the EDNY and blazes his own trail by being the first South Asian judge in the Second Circuit. We are proud to count Judge Bulsara among the most distinguished of our members and look forward to continuing to work with him in his new role at the EDNY.”

“SABANY is proud to congratulate Judge Bulsara as he enters the judiciary,“ states SABANY President Mahesh Parlikad. "Judge Bulsara exemplifies what it means to be a public servant, and as the first South Asian judge in the Second Circuit, his appointment resonates with a growing South Asian population in New York and across the nation. He is a role model for SABANY members and beyond. We are excited by the significance of an increasingly diverse EDNY bench at this time, particularly when other federal judicial nominations are lacking in diversity, and we are eager to continue to work with Judge Bulsara to serve our communities.”

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

JUDGE MARILYN D. GO TO RECEIVE INAUGURAL NORMAN LAU KEE TRAILBLAZER AWARD FROM ASIAN AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION OF NEW YORK

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 15, 2014 

Contact: Yang Chen, Executive Director
(718) 228-7206 

NEW YORK – September 15, 2014 – The Asian American Bar Association of New York (“AABANY”) is proud to announce that United States District Court Magistrate Judge Marilyn D. Go, Eastern District New York, will receive the inaugural Norman Lau Kee Trailblazer Award. Judge Go will be honored at AABANY’s Fifth Annual Fall Conference held at the law firm Morgan Lewis Bockius on September 20, 2014.

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 of Asian Pacific American (APA) descent or dedicated to APA issues 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.

Marilyn D. Go, United States Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of New York, was the first Asian American woman to serve as a judge in a federal court.  After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1977, she clerked for the late Honorable William M. Marutani in Philadelphia, who was the only Asian American judge on the East Coast at the time. She then served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Civil Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the EDNY and was later a partner at Baden Kramer Huffman Brodsky & Go, P.C.  Committed to promoting diversity and professionalism in the bar, Judge Go was a founding member, officer and director of the Asian American Bar Association of New York; chair of the Voting Rights Committee of NAPABA; Vice Chair of the Standing Committee on Minorities in the Judiciary of the American Bar Association; and a member of Governor Cuomo’s Task Force on Minority Representation on the Bench.

 “Judge Go is a true trailblazer in our community,” Yang Chen, AABANY’s Executive Director, states. “She rose to the top of the legal profession as an attorney and judge at a time when women leaders, particularly APA women, were few and far between. Through her achievements, accomplishments and leadership, she has paved the way for future generations of lawyers to succeed and attain prominence. As one of the founding Board members of AABANY, she helped to lay the foundation for future leaders to grow the organization into the great bar association it is today. Because of the trails she has blazed, Judge Go has made a real difference for APA attorneys and the legal profession. We are proud to count her as a leading member of our association and our community.”

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For more information, please contact Yang Chen, AABANY Executive Director, at (718) 228-7206, 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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