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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.

Stewart Kwoh

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 leadership.”

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.”

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