AABA’s History and Mission
(posted March 2016)
When the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area (AABA) was formed in 1976, Asian Americans made their mark in U.S. history that year with events that included President Gerald Ford rescinding Executive Order 9066, Yale establishing an East Coast Asian Student Union (ECASU) after a pan-campus conference was held and the Supreme Court ruling in the Hampton v. Wong Mow Sun case that Civil Service cannot deny employment on the basis of race.
William Jack Chow (deceased) was the first AABA president with Paul Li (deceased) as the secretary and George Yamasaki, Jr. as the treasurer. Dale Minami, Michael T. Ito, Michael G.W. Lee, Raul S. Picardo, Penny N. Nakatsu, Clarence J. Moy (deceased) and Norman Lew were also instrumental in AABA’s formation. AABA’s first board member was Patricia D. Lee.
“The late Jack Chow was responsible for my involvement,” said Yamasaki, who currently works as a solo practitioner specializing in immigration and nationality. “Jack conceived the notion of a Bay Area Asian lawyers’ group and personally recruited the original members. He was the founding president, and I served as treasurer.”
Since AABA’s inception in 1976 it has become one of the largest Asian American bar associations in the nation and one of largest minority bar associations in the State of California. AABA and its members have always been engaged in civil rights issues and community service. The organization not only meets the professional needs of its members but uses members’ resources and expertise to serve the public through legal clinics and other programs. AABA is also certified by the State Bar Board of Governors as a provider of Minimum Continuing Legal education and sends delegates to the annual State Bar Conference of Delegates.
“My recollection is that Jack, who was extremely active in Democratic politics, believed that an Asian lawyers’ group might play a significant role in political appointments, particularly judges,” said Yamasaki. “Although initially this objective was perhaps the most important substantive aim of the organization, there certainly was a social aspect to it, as well. I don’t believe the term ‘networking’ had yet come into use.”
Minami was a partner in Minami, Tomine & Lew (now Minami Tamaki LLP) when he became one of the 10 founding members of AABA. He recalled that people had different reasons for the formation of AABA but his primary reasons “were to organize to empower APA attorneys in the legal establishment so we could ameliorate racism in the courts, get API’s appointed in judgeships, and provide emotional support.”
“Our East Bay organization of about 10 lawyers, Committee of Asian American Attorneys, which was started in 1975, began meeting to discuss a broader organization,” explained Minami about AABA’s formation. “We heard that a parallel group in SF was meeting so we decided to meet together to begin creating a new Bay Area API bar association.”
Minami said AABA’s objectives and goals were to “get judges appointed, receive fair treatment in the courts, cross refer business, and establish a political and social presence to demand the respect which was not easily offered by the majority bar organizations and legal community.”
“We formed and strengthened ties with Asian American and other ethnic bar groups in the Greater Bay Area and California,” said Michael G.W. Lee, who was a partner at Lau and Lee when he joined AABA. “I recall in particular interaction with the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Bar Association, the Japanese Bar Association and lawyers in Sacramento.”
According to Minami the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association and the Japanese Bar Association began the year before AABA.
“I believed it was important to have an organization presenting Asian-American lawyers because the mainstream lawyers associations lacked diversity, “said Teresa Tan, one of the founding members of AABA who is now retired. Tan attended law school with many of the founding members of AABA, held various committee positions, served on the Board of Directors and then became the first female president of AABA in 1981.
“We had many of the same type of activities, events and programs as today, but on a much smaller scale,” said Michael G.W. Lee, who now runs his own law firm, the Law Office of Michael G.W. Lee. “Also, we did not yet recognize outstanding advocates by presenting awards such as the Joe Morozumi Award for Exceptional Legal Advocacy, and AABA had not yet established such wonderful and important programs as the various scholarships and mentorship programs.”
Tan recalled that, from the time that AABA began, it had a “judicial nominees evaluation, social committee and legislative committee.”
“Individually and collectively we did everything we could – worked to support and promote worthy causes, groups and advocates that AABA formally endorsed; established links and worked with Asian American, minority and “establishment” bars; filed amicus briefs; signed petitions, made calls, and sent letters; pushed for judicial appointments, etc., – although not in anything near the organized manner and scale of today’s AABA,” Lee explained.
AABA members have filed an amicus brief in the Bakke affirmative action case and filed a successful petition overturning the conviction of Fred Korematsu in the landmark Korematsu v. United States case. They also worked on the successful campaign to release Chol Soo Lee from prison, and were involved in the efforts to release Wen Ho Lee and to unseal documents in his case.
Other issues AABA members have worked on include challenging Proposition 8 and DOMA, holding discussions on Ferguson and Eric Garner, signing on to amicus briefs in the Fisher v. University of Texas case and In re: Sergio C. Garcia, about Garcia, an undocumented immigrant, who wanted to be admitted to the State Bar of California.
For AABA’s long history of advocating for diversity in the legal profession, it was awarded the California State Bar’s Diversity Award (bar association) in 2009.
How did AABA raise funds to keep the organization running? “At the outset the funding was provided by the membership,” said Yamasaki. “I do remember a banquet at the Four Seas, with which Jack was connected, that perhaps turned a small profit. AABA, I think, did not wish to compete with Asian service providers or donations.” Just as in the past dues and the annual dinner still help support AABA.
Tan said the “annual dinner is always the highlight of the year.”
When deciding a name for the organization 40 years ago, Minami said, “We just sat down, and batted around different names and liked the ‘Asian American’ inclusiveness, the ‘Bar’ to differentiate ourselves from the Asian Law Caucus which was a service organization and announced our stated goal of participating in a world of attorneys. And we liked the sound of the acronym AABA.”
“Members have represented the interests of the Asian-American lawyers and communities since the the mid-70’s,” said Tan, when thinking about the most significant accomplishments ABA achieved since its formation. “The organization pushed for the appointment of the first Asian-American judge in Alameda County (Judge Ken Kawaichi), appeared before the State Bar committees to voice the concerns of minority lawyers, pushed through the vote to get the State Bar’s support of government redress payments to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, among other activities. Also, members went on to leadership positions in various county and local bar associations. There also are Asian-American judges in Bay Area counties where there has been almost none before.”
Although Asian American attorneys have made many strides in the legal profession since AABA began, Tan feels there is a still a need for this type of organization. “It’s always important to have a vehicle to interact with lawyers of similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds,” Tan said. Lee agrees, stating that “our goals have still not been fully realized, and we need to react to current developments. Our advocacy is still very much needed and often is, and can be effective.”
“[AABA] provided me with friendship, was part of my identity as a young lawyer, and represented the interest and values of Asian-American lawyers in the larger legal community,” said Tan on how her involvement in AABA has impacted her life.
Reflecting on his own involvement, Lee said “that diverse people of good will can accomplish incredible good by organizing and working together.”
Minami reflected on how AABA has impacted his life and said, “You have to fight for equality – it is not a given. Political power gains respect.”