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Alameda Judge Kawaichi wins Aranda Award


Twenty-four-year-old Catosha Woods didn't come from a family with ties to the legal profession. In fact, the Louisianian and third-year student at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall Law School is the first in her family to attend any kind of professional school. But when she graduates in May, she will have the advantage of solid, hands-on court experience as a law clerk in Oakland's Kazan Law Firm.

Judge Ken Kawaichi
Judge Kawaichi

Woods, who is African-American, got the job as a result of her participation in a special summer internship program for minorities created with the help of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ken Kawaichi. She stayed on with the organization after she completed the program in 2001.

"I had no experience and no connections," Woods said. "I wouldn't have had an opportunity for participation in a legal firm, but now I've had an incredible amount of experience. I'm definitely a beneficiary of the program."

The program is but one of many ways Kawaichi, who joined the bench in 1980, has paved the way for people who might otherwise have a difficult time breaking into the legal profession. And it's but one of myriad ways he's dedicated his career to increasing the diversity of jurists working in the system and making them more sensitive to other cultures.

Kawaichi also has made the courts more accessible to disadvantaged people who experience the judicial system on the other side. He's made sure court forms are available in languages needed by many non-English speakers and established procedures to ensure that persons with disabilities can easily access courthouse chambers.

In recognition of Kawaichi's tremendous efforts to improve access to the courts for poor and low income persons and other disadvantaged communities, as well as people of color, and to honor the impact his work has had on other attorneys, judges and the system itself, Kawaichi last month received the Benjamin Aranda III Access to Justice Award.

Given in concert by the Judicial Council, the State Bar of California and the California Judges Association, the honor recognizes a judge who has demonstrated long-term commitment to equal access to the judicial system and who has personally done significant work to improve that access.

"I have known [Kawaichi] to be a tireless worker in the vineyards of fairness and access to justice, on behalf of poor people, handicapped people, people of color, and all other litigants," said retired Judge Michael Ballachey, who has known Kawaichi for 30 years.

"His level of energy and determination in pursuit of these worthy goals has been astounding. He has taught, organized, supported and cajoled on behalf of these interests the entire time.The sincerity of his efforts is testified to by their endurance; the impact by their achievements.

"Judge Kawaichi has literally helped change the way judges approach their work. He's made the courts face (fairness and access) issues with a gracious persistence.

"For example, he nominated a person with cerebral palsy to the grand jury who was the first accepted. He made sure their needs were addressed. And he's made huge advances for the hearing impaired.''

Here is but a partial list of Kawaichi's many activities aimed at increasing fairness and access in the courts:

  • Helped establish the first Race and Gender Bias Policy for the Alameda County courts as well as a court-wide policy for improving access for people with disabilities.

  • Taught law students and other attorneys to be aware of courtroom fairness issues through his courses over the years at various schools (including U.C. Berkeley and the Oakland College of Law) and through a variety of continuing judicial education programs. And through his leadership on the Access Committee of the California Judicial Council, he helped create educational opportunities on cultural and access issues for other jurists as well as established outreach forums with members of the community to help identify and solve access problems.

  • Worked with Aranda as a member of the Judicial Council's Race and Ethnic Bias Task Force addressing issues such as the make-up of the judiciary and the work force, disparate sentencing, selection of jurors, treatment of people by staff, and in general, improving awareness of cultural issues.

  • Spearheaded and chairs the Alameda County Bar Association's Committee of Race and Ethnic Fairness, which has put together educational programs both for the public and legal professionals.

  • Established and promoted a judicial complaint system that allows both the public and attorneys to file grievances without fear of retribution.

  • Worked to create the first legal services center to help low and moderate income Californians get information and help dealing with the courts.

Prior to joining the bench, Kawaichi frequently represented litigants pro bono and has strongly urged other attorneys to do the same. Indeed, many judges and attorneys say Kawaichi's greatest achievement is the inspiration and leadership he has provided to others that has improved greatly the way the courts deal with the disadvantaged.

"Like Judge Aranda, [Kawaichi] has offered a significant symbolic presence — a former practicing lawyer who dedicated much of his time to the underrepresented, a minority judge who continued to support minority bar and community activists, and an excellent jurist who has won the respect of the bar throughout the Bay Area," San Francisco attorney Dale Minami said.

In 1971, Minami and Kawaichi created the Asian Law Caucus, which provides legal services to those who could not otherwise afford it.

"Perhaps more than any other individual I know, he has helped mold a generation of attorneys who have adopted an ethical code in which volunteer and pro bono work are a natural and honorable component of practicing law," Minami added. "And he has done this with a sense of humor, a supreme graciousness and a steely commitment."

Indeed, despite his impressive accomplishments, Kawaichi remains low-key and unassuming. He is most proud, he says, of seeing others "run with the ball."

"There are so many people of goodwill who continue to work toward the goals of extending access," Kawaichi said.

"It is great to see people who really do care about the system. Because, if we deny access to anybody, we have in fact denied access to everyone."

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