By Andrew Cohen
More than 600 days after President Barack Obama first nominated him, the Senate has confirmed Judge Edward Chen ’79 to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. He becomes only the second Asian American judge in the district’s 150-year history, following the confirmation of Lucy Koh in 2010.
Chen, 58, has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in San Francisco since 2001. Previously, he spent 16 years as a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and worked in private practice at Coblentz, Cahen, McCabe & Breyer from 1982 to 1985. After graduating Order of the Coif from Berkeley Law, where he served on the California Law Review, Chen clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Charles Renfrew and U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Browning.
Obama first nominated Chen on August 7, 2009, but Senate Republicans did not go forward with a confirmation vote. Obama re-nominated Chen in January 2010, a third time in September, and a fourth time in January. Chen, who received the highest judicial ratings from the San Francisco and American Bar Associations, was finally confirmed by a 56-42 vote as four Republican Senators joined Democrats in support.
Chen was initially recommended by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. After his confirmation, she said in a statement that Chen possesses “both judicial experience and a proven judicial track record.” Noting that he wrote more than 350 published opinions in his 10 years as a judge, Feinstein added, “Not one of those opinions has been criticized in the entire 20 months that his nomination has been awaiting action in the Senate.”
The son of Chinese immigrants, Chen was born and raised in Oakland. In 1983, just four years after graduating from Berkeley Law, he was part of the legal team that successfully argued to void Fred Korematsu’s conviction for evading the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. The team submitted newly discovered evidence which showed that prosecutors in Korematsu’s original case had withheld key evidence—U.S. government intelligence at the time that indicated the internment was neither necessary nor justified.
With the ACLU, Chen worked on issues involving free speech, the 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 the Employment Law Center, which provides legal assistance and public education regarding language discrimination.
Chen has received numerous awards, including Judge of the Year from the Barristers Club of San Francisco in 2007, Alumnus of the Year from the California Law Review in 2002, and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s highest honor, its Trailblazer Award, in 2001.
“Judge Chen’s confirmation was imperative to our community for many reasons,” said Asian American Bar Association Past President Edwin Prather, who cited “unnecessary Senate politics” as the reason for his nomination being returned to the Senate Judiciary Committee a record four times. “Judge Chen’s confirmation is not just the confirmation of a wonderful and intelligent jurist, but an affirmation that our community can achieve victories when we are united behind a cause.”