Chin Shares Experiences as Federal District Court Judge
As a federal judge in the Southern District of New York, Judge Denny Chin sees some of the most cutting-edge cases in the country, so much so that three of his cases were used as plots for the popular Law and Order television series. But Chin's position is unique for another reason as well — he was the first Asian-American appointed to a federal district court judgeship outside the 9th Circuit, and is now just one of six Asian-American Article III judges today. Chin spoke informally to students in a discussion organized by the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) April 1 at the Law School.
"It is probably the most important trial court in the country, given its location in New York City," Chin said.
From his decision ruling that Megan's Law could not be applied retroactively to offenders convicted before the law was enacted (earning him the unwelcome nickname of "pervert's pal" from detractors), to his decision overruling former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's decision to block the Million Youth March, led by controversial black power leader Khallid Abdul Muhammad, Chin sees it all. He rules over civil and criminal cases, commercial cases, contract cases, murder cases, narcotics cases, "boiler room" cases — and even the lawsuit regarding pictures published in Penthouse that were purportedly of tennis star Anna Kournikova; the real subject of the photos sued the magazine for printing pictures of her sunbathing topless on a public beach in Miami.
Chin's path to his judgeship offers a compelling parable of an immigrant's success. His family moved to the United States in 1956 from Hong Kong under the Refugee Relief Act when he was just 2 years old. His grandfather had already established himself in America as a waiter, and his father became a chef and his mother worked as a seamstress. A graduate of Princeton, Chin couldn't get a paying job after his first year at the Fordham University School of Law, so he interned for a judge in New York's Southern District, then clerked for the same judge following graduation.
"I saw what a great job [being a federal judge] was," he said. That summer he mapped out his career and followed it almost to the letter. He worked for law firm Davis Polk after his clerkship, then became an Assistant U.S. Attorney for four years, and later started his own firm with friends.
"We never quite got the hang of developing business — that was the hard part," he said.
He then specialized in employment law at another firm. When he applied for the judgeship, he was just 39, but there were 10 vacancies in the Southern District of New York for President Clinton to fill.
Although he went through an extensive background check, "my confirmation hearing took about five minutes, maybe three minutes — it was that simple."
"It was a very vigorous job process because once you have the job you have it for life," he added.
Part of the reason life tenure is so important is so that judges will not be unduly influenced by public opinion, he said, although he is careful to consider both sides of an issue in his judgments.
Chin described one difficult case, the "Candyman" case, where federal agents had issued subpoenas around the country to anyone who had submitted their email address to a web site that gave access to child pornography once you were made a member through that address. With membership, the site offered the options of chat rooms, surveys, and "vids and pics" for "people who like kids." The government argued it had probable cause to search the homes of people who had entered their address, but Chin granted one defendant's motion to suppress. He concluded it was not reasonable to permit the government to search the homes and seize the computers of thousands of individuals merely because their e-mail addresses were entered into a web site, where, in addition to gaining access to child pornography, they could engage in text-based activities such as participating in chat rooms and answering surveys.
"It may be disgusting, but it's protected activity," he said. He was the sixth judge to address a motion to suppress in cases around the country, and he was the first to grant the motion. Since his decision, one of the other judges has changed her mind and a third judge has suppressed as well.
Although Chin said that by and large he has not experienced discrimination as a judge, there have been some incidents that happened because of his race. Three weeks after Chin ruled on a commercial breach of contract case involving plaintiff's lawyer Larry Klayman, Klayman wrote a letter to Chin asking if he had any connection to John Huang or the Democratic National Committee. At the time, both were being investigated for alleged illegal fundraising activities.
"It was clear the only reason he asked me these questions was because I'm Asian-American," Chin said. He directed Klayman to explain the letter and in open court Klayman stated that he had written the letter because Chin was Asian. Klayman explained that he and his client were concerned that Chin had ruled against them because Klayman had engaged in activities that some had portrayed as being anti-Asian. Klayman later alleged in a brief that because minorities cannot obtain positions in high places without the support of their communities, Chin could not have gotten his appointment without the support of John Huang. While the lawyer was not a member of the New York Bar, Chin sanctioned him, revoking his pro hoc admission membership granted to argue the case. When Klayman appealed, the 2nd Circuit affirmed Chin's sanctions.
In another case, Chin tried to offer some off-the-record advice to a young Korean-American lawyer who had turned an attempt to collect on a note into a RICO case. The lawyer turned around and made a motion that Chin recuse himself from the case, saying Chin was "too hard on him because he was Asian-American."
"In nine years I've had two incidents and I think I dealt with them just fine," Chin said.
Chin said he felt diversity on the bench was a valuable goal, since it may help some plaintiffs or defendants understand that the legal system represents them as well. The West Coast has a large number of experienced Asian-American litigators, and the East Coast is quickly catching up.
"I think in time we'll get more Asian-American judges as these Asian-American litigators get more experience under their belts," he said.
While he said stereotypes about Asian-Americans still exist and sometimes rise to the surface, women, for example, may face more challenges in battling discrimination.
"Often being a woman places you at a disadvantage at many big firms," he said. "It's rare than an institutional client gets handed down to a woman."
By contrast, "it's hard to say whether being Asian-American is going to place anyone at a disadvantage," he said. Chin said he thought being Asian-American was an advantage for him because it gave him the opportunity to do good things, such as pro bono work for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
He said there may be parts of the country that are less tolerant, noting that there's no question that some Asian-American lawyers feel held back. "Is there rampant racism? I don't think so," he said. "I think you can overcome these things — that's what I really think." But he added that it was important to remember the history of Asians in the United States, and mentioned in particular the Korematsu case and the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
On the other hand, because he is one of few Asian-American federal judges, "I know that I have to do a good job, because I know that if I screw up, it's not just me," it will be the "Chinese judge" that screwed up. He recalled when the Houston Rockets came to town, along with the team's new star, Yao Ming, his younger children were excited about going to the game. His 8-year-old felt torn and said, "'I love the Knicks, but I love Yao.'" There were several more Asian-American faces in Madison Square Gardens that night too. "He clearly represented something for a lot of people," he said.
When asked what types of questions he asks clerkship candidates, Chin said he always asks candidates to tell him about themselves. Good candidates will often lead the question into a conversation. "I'm looking for people who are smart, I'm looking for people I can work with," said Chin, who gets 500 applications for clerkships every year. He also asks them a hypothetical, noting it is much more important to show balance and reasoning than arguing for a right or wrong answer. He called clerking "difficult," but rewarding at the federal court level.
"You see how our system works," he said. "The federal court is the place to be."
He encouraged students at the discussion to be Assistant U.S. Attorneys as well, even if the eventual goal is private practice, because it is rewarding work and a great experience, and also gives you "instant credibility" among judges.
When asked about affirmative action, Chin expressed mixed feelings. He said he had been a beneficiary of affirmative action, but noted that in many colleges affirmative action may hurt Asian-Americans' chances of admittance since they are often not given the same plus-factor as other minorities. His own son attended Stuyvesant High School, a top public school in New York which bases admittance solely on a test. The students were about 55 percent Asian-American, when the population in New York City is only about 10 percent Asian-American. On one hand, many Asian-Americans have done very well in America, he said, but more recent immigrants often face serious problems and prejudice and might be deserving of some special consideration.
"I think it's real important to have diversity" at the universities, he said. "The Michigan case is a tough case because of the way it's done with the numbers."
"We're in a complicated situation. We're minorities in some ways, we've done well in some ways," he said, adding that it's still important to be involved in the Asian-American community, a goal Chin tries to honor by accepting as many invitations to events as possible.
"It's real important for you to be involved," he said. "You need to be an activist wherever you land, whether it be at a big firm by doing pro bono work and being involved in the community or doing something else in the public interest."
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