HERBERT CHOY / 1916-2004

Isle judge was Asian
pioneer in the law
field nationwide

Federal appellate Judge Herbert Choy, the first Asian federal judge in the United States, worked his way from humble beginnings to the top of his field.

The son of poor immigrant plantation workers, Choy was the only Asian in his class at Harvard Law School when there were no affirmative-action programs and few scholarships.

If there was anything the self-effacing man was proud of, his Harvard education was it, Choy told the Star-Bulletin during an interview last year.

Choy, 88, the first Korean-American lawyer in the country, died in his sleep last night at the Queen's Medical Center.

Judge Richard Clifton, who succeeded Choy on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2000, said that although the semiretired judge was a role model and a "historic figure," he never held himself up as an example to follow. Choy was "personally humble and reticent" about his accomplishments, Clifton said.

Choy once said about his career, "You always have the feeling that you are a role model, but it didn't make any difference in the way I performed my role."

To his "federal family" of more than 70 law clerks, "he had an enormous effect on all of us," according to Clifton, former clerk. Last year, the clerks commissioned a portrait, by renowned artist Anne Mackintosh, that hangs in the headquarters of the 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

Choy was born in Makaweli, Kauai. "I came from a small town in a small state" and had to work to support himself through school, he once told the Star-Bulletin.

His family believed in education as the steppingstone to realizing the American Dream, he added.

Following law school, Choy served in the Hawaii Territorial Guard for two years, then with the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps during World War II from 1942 to 1946. He practiced law privately in Honolulu until his appointment to the Circuit Court in 1971.

Choy said the amount of work in the 9th was enormous. He said he felt he accomplished more as a federal appellate judge than in any other position. He was given "senior status" in 1984, continuing to work from home part time.

Clifton said the most meaningful lesson he learned from Choy was "a fundamental respect for each person's (plaintiff's) day in court, because that's his day of being heard, of being considered."

Choy "took every case very seriously," Clifton said. "He read every brief and considered every argument. Given the volume of (a federal judge's) caseload, there is an enormous temptation to see some cases as more important that others, but he saw it as the day in court for that person. ... He worked very, very hard, and I try to do the same."

He added: "He was quite a person. ... He had a unique ability to engender that respect in everyone he met, and they liked him, too."

Choy is survived by his wife of 59 years, Helen Shular. Funeral arrangements are pending.


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