historical timeline

Timeline of Important Events in Asian American Legal History (1970 – present)

  • 1971 – President Nixon appoints Herbert C. Choy to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Choy, a Korean American raised in Hawaii by immigrant plantation workers, was the first Korean American attorney in the United States and the first Asian American on the federal judiciary. He passed away in 2004 after a long and distinguished career
  • 1972 – The Asian Law Caucus is formed by a group of young Asian American attorneys and activists, along with their mentor Ken Kawaichi, who would later become a Superior Court Judge. It is the first APA civil rights law firm in the country.
  • 1974 – The Supreme Court rules in Lau v. Nichols that school districts with children who speak limited English must receive bilingual education. The suit was a class-action case brought by non-English speaking Chinese students in the San Francisco Unified School District, alleging a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.
  • 1974 – President Nixon resigns from office in light of the Watergate scandal. Vice President Gerald Ford replaces him.
  • 1975 – American forces withdraw from Vietnam, marking the end of the Vietnam War, and a wave of immigration from Southeast Asia to the United States.
  • 1976 – Jimmy Carter becomes the 39th President of the United States.
  • 1977 – AABA is formed in late 1976, and begins its first year in 1977. The group is a mix of “old guard” attorneys and younger Asian American activist attorneys. William Jack Chow, believed to be the first Chinese American attorney to serve in a district attorney’s office, is elected President, and Michael G.W. Lee becomes vice president.
  • 1977 – AABA submits amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Bakke affirmative action case.
  • 1977 – The last residents of the International Hotel in San Francisco are evicted. The I-Hotel in “Manilatown” had been a home to immigrant Filipino service workers and Filipino war veterans for decades. The I-Hotel becomes a symbol for the evils of urban development and issues of low-cost housing, and helped to galvanize APA political activists and organizations. The hotel was eventually demolished, but no development took place on the empty lot for decades. The site is now targeted for a Filipino American senior citizens’ center.
  • 1978 – A series of articles written by Kyung Won Lee about the dubious murder conviction of Chol Soo Lee appear in the Sacramento Union. A legal defense committee is formed to push for his re-trial. Hundreds of APA activists and leaders take up the cause, including many APA attorneys. Lee is acquitted and released in 1983.
  • 1980 – In the aftermath of the Iran hostage saga and economic problems at home, California Governor Ronald Reagan is elected President of the United States.
  • 1982 – Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese American, is clubbed to death with a baseball bat by two laid-off auto workers in Detroit who reportedly blame “Japs” for their plight (Chin is Chinese American). His killers receive a fine and probation, with no jail time. Chin’s death and the killers’ light sentence sparks a wave of Asian American activism across the country.
  • 1984 – After years of struggle and advocacy, Fred Korematsu’s wartime conviction for defying the internment order is overturned in Korematsu v. United States. The decision is a watershed moment for the Japanese American community and emboldens the redress and reparations movement. Korematsu’s legal team is made up of a group of APA attorneys, including Dale Minami.
  • 1986– The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) is passed. The law imposes penalties on employers who hire undocumented immigrants, and puts a damper on minority hiring. Anti-immigrant legislation and propositions, particularly in California, continue throught the 80s and 90s.
  • 1988 – George Bush, Sr. is elected President, defeating Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.
  • 1989 – Justice Joyce Kennard is appointed to the California Supreme Court, becoming the first APA on the Court.
  • 1989 – The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) is formed. NAPABA is the first national Asian American bar association. Hoyt Zia, a former AABA President, becomes NAPABA’s first president.
  • 1989 – The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which implements the recommendations of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, is signed into law by the President. Under thc law, the government apologizes for the internment and offers redress and reparations to thousands of Japanese Americans who were denied their civil and constitutional rights by the U.S. government during World War II.
  • 1989-1992 – Three issues dominate the APA political scene: 1) APAs file suit against top colleges and universities alleging that they discriminated against APAs during the 80’s by imposing limits on the number of APAs admitted, 2) anti-Asian violence is on the rise nationwide, and 3) APAs fight for fair and equal voting rights (foreign language ballots and drawing of voting districts to not split up APA communities). AABA is active on all issues, submitting amicus briefs and speaking out on these issues.
  • 1992 – William Clinton, Democratic Governor of Arkansas, is elected 41st President of the United States.
  • 1992 – The violent beating of Rodney King by four white Los Angeles police officers, and their subsequent acquittal, sparks riots throughout the Los Angeles area. Korean-owned businesses find themselves attacked by looters and mobs – and fight back. The rift between the African American and Korean American communities is exposed, but in the aftermath healing also begins. Attorney Angela Oh becomes a spokesperson for the Korean American community.
  • 1994 – NAPABA and AABA each form Judiciary Committees to advocate for the appointment of APAs to the judiciary. This remains one of the most significant issues for AABA, NAPABA and other Asian American bar associations.
  • 1994 – Anti-immigration fervor hits a peak as Proposition 187 is passed in California to deny basic benefits to illegal immigrants. Civil rights and immigration rights groups immediately and successfully challenge the constitutionality of the law, obtaining a TRO preventing its implementaiton. The appeal of the decision is dropped when Governor Gray Davis takes office in 1998.
  • 1996 – Justice Ming Chin is appointed to the California Supreme Court after a distinguished career as a prosecutor and in private practice.
  • 1996 – Democratic Party fundraising scandal breaks, centering on contributions solicited by then Democratic National Committee vice finance chairman John Huang. Huang is removed from his position in 1996. APA political candidates suffer in the polls. APAs and APA groups come under intense scrutiny for contributions made to candidates and parties, and APA political candidates suffer.
  • 1996 – Proposition 209 is passed, effectively prohibiting affirmative action programs in state and local government, and public schools and universities in California.
  • 1998 – Susan Oki Mollway is appointed to United States District Court, District of Hawaii, becoming the first Asian American woman federal judge in U.S. history.
  • 1999 – Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee is accused of disclosing alleged nuclear secrets. After spending nine months in prison (most of that time in solitary confinement), 58 of the 59 charges against him are suddenly dropped and Lee is released after pleading guilty to a single count of mishandling of documents. Lee’s prolonged incarceration and unjust treatment sparks activism and controversy over the use of racial profiling.
  • 2000 – In the closest and perhaps most controversial presidential election in U.S. history, George Bush, Jr. becomes President of the United States, defeating Al Gore, despite not winning the popular vote.
  • 2001 – ACLU attorney and former AABA Board member Ed Chen is appointed as magistrate judge in the Northern District of California (Editor’s Note: In September 2009, Chen was nominated to become a district court judge, under Article III; after confirmation, he would become the first and only Asian Pacific American district court judge in the Northern District).
    The dot-com boom goes bust. Later in the year, terrorists bring down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Congress passes the Patriot Act to fight the war on terrorism but curtail civil rights and liberties in the process.
  • 2002 – Jeff Adachi is elected San Francisco Public Defender. Adachi had spent 15 years in the public defender’s office and had risen to the number two spot in the office when he was unceremoniously fired by Kimiko Burton who had been appointed SF Public Defender when then-Public Defender Jeff Brown was appointed to the Public Utilities Commission. Adachi defeated Burton in an election the next year. His well-established track record and strong grassroots support prevailed. Adachi became the first Asian American elected to the SF Public Defender’s office.
  • 2003 – Kamala Devi Harris is elected as San Francisco District Attorney. Harris, of South Asian and African American descent, became the first Asian American DA in San Francisco’s history. She received widespread support from diverse groups.
  • 2004-2005 – AABA continues to advocate for the appointment of APA judges on the bench, holding a press conference denouncing the California Governor’s failure to appoint APAs to the San Francisco Superior Court. In 2005, former AABA Board Member, Garrett Wong, is appointed to the San Francisco Superior Court, becoming one of five Asian American judges on the court. Elizabeth Lee is appointed to the San Mateo County Superior Court bench, and Lillian Sing returns to the San Francisco Superior Court after election, becoming the sixth APA judge on the bench, out of approximate 50 judges.
  • 2007 – Amul Thapar is confirmed as a federal distict court judge for the Eastern District of Kentucky, becoming the first district court judge of South Asian descent, and the first Asian American federal district court judge (Article III) outside of California, New York and Hawaii.
  • 2008 – In a historic election, Senator Barack Obama (D-Illinois) is elected the first African American President of the United States. Asian Americans overwhelmingly support Obama. Former AABA President David Chiu is elected to the SF Board of Supervisors, and is then elected Board President, becoming the first Chinese American to serve in that positionProposition 8, banning same-sex marriages, passes in California. Civil rights groups challenge the constitutionality of the proposition in court.
  • 2009 – AABA receives the California State Bar’s Diversity Award (bar association) in honor of its long history of advocating for diversity in the legal profession.

AABA’s original logo from 1976 (updated). Each year, AABA presents the Joe Morozumi Award for Exceptional Legal Advocacy and its Distinguished Service Award, as well as law student scholarships. See a photo list of past AABA presidents, and see a roster of all past officers, board members and committee co-chairs. Click on the AABA Timeline to see events from AABA’s History.

From its start at a small storefront in Oakland, the Asian Law Caucus. has become a nationally recognized civil rights group, at the forefront of legal issues affecting APAs.

AABA submitted an amicus brief in the Bakke affirmative action case. (Courtesy of Paul Perdue). Read the Court’s decision, Univ. of California Regents v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).

Supporters attend a rally for Chol Soo Lee, who was finally released from prision in 1983. (Credit: From East Wind Magazine Vol. 1 No. 2 (1982), article by Ranko Yamada, as reprinted in www.aamovement.net).

Vincent Chin’s violent death in 1982, followed by the miscarriage of justice in which his killers served no jail time, led many APAs to become politically active and advocate for APA rights.

AABA and ALC attorneys with Fred Korematsu at a 1983 press conference on his internment case. Read articles about the Korematsu decision; read Judge Patel’s opinion in Korematsu v. United States, 584 F.Supp. 1406 (N.D. Cal. 1984) overturning Korematsu’s conviction.

The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) is formed in 1989. NAPABA is the first national APA bar association in the country.

Fred Korematsu with redress & reparations letter and check.
(Photo credit: Shirley Nakao)

Judge Susan Oki Mollway (left) became the first Asian American woman appointed to a federal court in 1998. In 1989, Justice Joyce Kennard (right), born in Indonesia, became the first APA appointed to the California Supreme Court.

(Photo: www.wenholee.org)

After the federal government dropped 58 of the 59 charges it originally brought against him, Wen Ho Lee (center) was released from prison on September 13, 2000, having spent nine months in solitary confinement. Judge James A. Parker openly questioned why Lee was incarcerated for so long and apologized to Lee “for the unfair manner you were held in custody by the Executive Branch.”

AABA leader Jeff Adachi was elected San Francisco Public Defender in 2002, after a contentious election against Kimiko Burton, daughter of Assemblyman John Burton. Adachi received strong grassroots support from San Francisco’s progressive community as well as many other constituencies. (Photo: Nichi Bei Times).


APAs at a reception for Kamala Harris (right) during the 2003 election campaign. Harris, who is half South Asian, became the first woman and first APA District Attorney of San Francisco.

Dale Minami (above in 1983 and 2003) received the ABA Thurgood Marshall Award in 2003 for his civil rights work.

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