Widely honored lawyer finds unlikely heroes
Stewart Kwoh can hardly remember a time when he wasn’t interested in
civil rights and community service. Volunteer and advocacy efforts that began
in his teens intensified as Kwoh grew older; they ultimately molded his legal
career when he founded the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Los Angeles
in 1983. As its only executive director since then, Kwoh has guided the center’s
growth, watching it expand to 60 full-time staff and 700 volunteers. Since
its founding, Kwoh estimates the center has handled tens of thousands of cases.
In recognition of his longtime advocacy of an often unrepresented and exploited
community, Kwoh received the Loren Miller Legal Services Award, the State Bar’s
highest honor. Created in 1977, the award is presented annually to an attorney
who has demonstrated a long-term commitment to legal services and who has personally
done significant work in extending legal services to the poor.
Bruce Iwasaki, former executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los
Angeles, said Kwoh “has been a national leader on behalf of the Asian
Pacific Islander community, limited English proficient communities, immigrants
and the poor for more than 25 years. He has been a trailblazer in fostering
collaborations among ethnic communities, among business, government and the
disenfranchised, and among civil rights and legal services organizations. As
an author, speaker and national civil rights spokesman, Stewart has few peers
to match his reputation for integrity, skill at consensus building and visionary
Kwoh grew up in Los Angeles’ mixed Echo Park neighborhood with a diverse
set of friends, the son of an immigrant father from Shanghai with a PhD in
education and a Stockton-born Chinese mother who had a master’s in psychology.
The three summers he spent at a “brotherhood camp” run by the National
Conference of Christians and Jews were a transforming experience for him, piquing
his interest in the civil rights movement.
Kwoh majored in psychology pre-med at UCLA, intending to study medicine. But
when the National Guard came to the campus in 1970 and students were arrested,
Kwoh said he called family friend Judge Delbert Wong to get advice on how to
help bail the kids out of jail. That experience led him to switch his career
plans to law.
While a student at UCLA law school, Kwoh did well enough to qualify for a
position on the law review but chose instead to focus on legal services, “because
that was my trajectory.” After graduation, he launched a small Asian
law collective that grew to employ 10 lawyers. He even took on work as a grader
of bar exams solely so he could learn how to tutor prospective lawyers.
When the 1980 census showed a doubling of the Asian Pacific population in
Los Angeles, “I thought maybe we needed to start a publicly supported
legal center,” Kwoh said. He became the first and only executive director
of the APALC, which now reaches about 15,000 clients a year, handling cases
ranging from domestic violence to landlord-tenant matters to consumer fraud.
Besides direct legal services, the center does impact litigation, such as
serving as lead counsel on the highly publicized case of Thai sweatshop workers
in El Monte. After five years, the plaintiffs won almost $4.5 million from
large manufacturers and retailers as well as legal status. In 2000, several
plaintiffs testified before the state legislature and helped secure passage
of what Kwoh calls the “strongest anti-sweatshop law in America.”
Although El Monte was the best known of APALC’s cases, Kwoh said it’s
often the smaller matters that mean the most. He cited, for example, a 1982
Detroit hate crime in which two white autoworkers killed Vincent Chin, a Chinese
man who was celebrating his impending wedding with a group of friends. The
autoworkers reached a plea bargain for manslaughter, received a $3,000 fine
and were sentenced to probation. Kwoh read about the case and although no Asian
American had ever received protection from hate crime laws, he eventually persuaded
federal prosecutors to bring charges. Although the killers were acquitted,
Kwoh said Chin’s mother, Lily, be-came a hero for him over the course
of the case.
“She stood up for justice,” he said. “She didn’t win
but she urged people like me to make sure we’d have a strong legal organization
that could serve (people who would not otherwise have a lawyer). I run into
these people all the time.”
In fact, Kwoh is writing a book about common people who become heroes, including
Lily Chin, the Thai sweatshop workers and Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American
who refused to report for internment during World War II and took his case
to the Supreme Court.
Kwoh received a $300,000 MacArthur “genius” grant (“all
taxable”) in 1998, and donated most of the non-taxed money to APALC.
He routinely turns down offers for higher-paying jobs and rejects suggestions
that he run for office, believing the need for legal services is too great
to ignore. He is inspired, Kwoh said, by a Japanese-American relative who was
interned in a prison camp during World War II and once told him, “We
didn’t have strong organizations that would help us and we didn’t
have strong lawyers or legal groups that would defend us. We need those institutions.
That always stuck in my mind.
“There are a lot of challenges, but we know it’s worth everything
that goes into the fight.”