By Andrew Cohen
President Barack Obama recently nominated Edward Chen ’79 to the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Pending likely confirmation by the Senate, Chen will become the first Asian American federal district court judge in Northern California history.
Chen’s nomination was hailed by Asian American organizations that have decried the fact that only eight members of the 850-person federal judiciary are Asian American. An American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer in San Francisco for 16 years before becoming a U.S. Magistrate for the Northern District of California in 2001, Chen was recommended by the judicial screening committee of Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA).
“I am deeply honored to have been recommended by Senator Feinstein and nominated by President Obama to the District Court,” Chen said in a statement. “I look forward to the confirmation process.”
Obama also nominated San Jose Magistrate Richard Seeborg to the Northern District and Los Angeles lawyer Dolly Gee to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles—where she would become that region’s first female Asian American federal judge. In a statement, Obama said the nominees “exemplify the best in American jurisprudence, and they will serve the people of California with integrity and fairness.”
Chen earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from UC Berkeley before attending Berkeley Law, where he served on the California Law Review and graduated Order of the Coif. After clerking for U.S. District Judge Charles B. Renfrew and U.S. Court of Appeals Chief Judge James R. Browning, Chen practiced as a litigation associate at Coblentz, Cahen, McCabe & Breyer.
In 1983, Chen played a key role on the legal team that overturned the 1944 conviction of Fred Korematsu for defying the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the internments were justified, basing its holding on military allegations that Japanese Americans were aiding Japan’s armed forces. Nearly four decades later, a U.S. District Judge in San Francisco—with Korematsu in attendance—overturned the decision and said the U.S. military knew that no such evidence existed.
At the ACLU, Chen worked on a host of issues including free speech, death penalty, employee privacy rights, police misconduct, affirmative action, and race discrimination. He also co-chaired the Language Rights Project, co-sponsored by the ACLU and Employment Law Center, which provides legal assistance and public education regarding language discrimination.
Chen also served as co-counsel with fellow Berkeley Law graduate Dale Minami ’71 in representing a coalition of Asian Pacific American organizations and individuals who filed a petition with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights protesting the scapegoating and stereotyping of Asian Americans by the media, major political parties, and Congress in their investigations and treatment of the campaign finance controversy in 1997.
Voted Judge of the Year by the Barristers Club of San Francisco in 2007, Chen was ranked “exceptionally well qualified” by the Bar Association of San Francisco. As a U.S. Magistrate, he handled both civil and criminal cases and has presided over 500 settlement conferences. Chen has also served on the board of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area and on the Human Rights Committee of the California State Bar.