Yonsei judge brings experience, historical legacy to Alameda Superior Court

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HEADED TO COURT — After 14 years as a family law attorney and six months as an administrative law judge, Stephanie K. Sato — a former Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen — was recently appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom as an Alameda County Superior Court judge.
photo by Jennifer Pope Photography

If you think Stephanie K. Sato looks familiar, you are probably not alone. In 2002, she was named the Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen, representing the Japanese American community at various events in the region, as well as in other cities, states and even Japan.
But some may even have an earlier familiarity with her, as upon graduation from the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1990s, she wrote a column for the Nichi Bei Times while teaching English in Japan, which she continued upon returning stateside to an extent in the community publication, the predecessor to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

After practicing family law for 14 years, Sato was hired as an administrative law judge for the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board on Feb. 1. Recently, the San Francisco native was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the Alameda Superior Court, where a photo of her great grandfather will remind her of her family’s historical legacy of unjust incarceration, and how she should treat her litigants fairly in the eyes of justice. She is scheduled to start her new position on Aug. 23.
The Nichi Bei Weekly caught up with Sato, 45, of Alameda, Calif. to discuss her evolving career in law, and how the unjust treatment of her family during World War II guides her sense of justice today. The following e-mail interview has been edited for length and style.

Nichi Bei Weekly: If not for a career in law, what would you be doing?
Stephanie Sato: I think I would have enjoyed creating sports videos, such as the introduction videos played before every Golden State Warriors home game, which get the fans hyped up for the game.

NBW: What inspired or motivated you to go into a career of law in the first place?
SS: In college, I took an argumentative writing class — I think it was Rhetoric 1A at Berkeley, and I really enjoyed it. Rhetoric has a few different tracks, and one of them is prelaw. I ended up majoring in rhetoric on the prelaw track. After I graduated, I lived and worked in Japan for a year, and when I returned to the Bay Area, I thought about law school. … So I looked for paralegal jobs first. I wanted to see if I enjoyed being in the legal field before applying to law school. I was a pathology and trial paralegal for Berry & Berry in Oakland and after a couple of years, I found it interesting but wanted to have more responsibility than a paralegal, so I applied for law school.

NBW: How much of an influence was your family’s wartime incarceration?
SS: I’m cognizant about how important it is for a judge to serve justice, to be fair, and to be non-political. My family was personally affected when (they were sent with) 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps with no right to trial, no right to consult with an attorney — just took everyone’s lives, homes, and businesses away. One reason I wanted to become a judge was because I want to be someone who takes on this responsibility and does it right. I want to contribute to a judicial system that the public has faith in, and where litigants are treated fairly.

Last year, I took a genealogy class and did some research on my family’s history. I was able to obtain my great-grandfather Taiji Furuya’s A-file “alien file” from the National Archives. …. Great Grandpa Furuya immigrated from Japan to California in 1903 and became a farmer in Vacaville. After Pearl Harbor, he was removed from his home and put in Solano County jail. Records show that he “admitted” he had leadership positions … and that “because of his activities in these organizations, the subject was apprehended at his house and booked in jail.” So he was put in jail and separated from his family for years, due to racial prejudice and war hysteria. Most of my family … was interned in Topaz, Utah, but his wife, my great grandma, was placed in Gila River, Arizona. Great grandpa was separated from her for years during the war, because the government put him in a detention station in New Mexico, as he was considered more dangerous due to his leadership in the community. …

I cried when I read the file. I saw his mug shot, his fingerprints, and list of his belongings. I thought about how he had no right to trial, no right to an attorney. I thought about how the report noted he was nervous — of course he was, English was his second language, he was being questioned and had no attorney to explain what his rights were and what was happening.

It is common to have unrepresented parties appear in front of me during hearings, who need interpreters. I can tell that they have an additional layer of anxiety because not only are they unfamiliar with the legal system and not know what to expect, but they are not able to communicate directly with me in the language they are most comfortable with. I think of Great Grandpa Furuya and try my utmost to treat them with respect like any other litigant, and to not assume nervousness equates to guilt. I plan on having his picture in my chambers at the Superior Court to remind me of his experience and how I should treat the litigants fairly in my courtroom.

NBW: What prompted your move to go from private practice in family law, to becoming an administrative law judge?
SS: In the last few years, I began volunteering at the family courts. Sometimes I helped unrepresented parties with their forms, and talked to them about next steps. Other times, I helped mediate their disputes as a neutral settlement officer. … I really enjoyed it. I could see how it really helped people and made a difference in their lives. It was through this volunteer work that I realized that I actually found more satisfaction as a neutral listening to both sides, than just advocating for one side. … I wanted to do this as my regular full-time job.
As a family law attorney, I helped people and made a difference in their lives. But as a solo practitioner, the number of cases I could take — thus the number of people I could help — was limited. I love that as a judge, I can help more people — possibly hundreds a week, depending on the department I’m assigned to.

NBW: With the appointment to the Alameda Superior Court, how does that differ from being an administrative law judge?
SS: Superior Court judges hear a greater variety of cases, including civil, criminal, juvenile, family, and probate — whereas as an administrative law judge on the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, my cases were limited to mainly unemployment and disability appeals. In addition, typically the cases heard by the Superior Court are more complex than what an administrative law judge would hear.

NBW: You were selected as the 2002 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen. How did that experience impact your life long-term?
SS: The experience made a great impact on my life. I grew as a person. I became more mature, self-aware, and confident. The skills I learned helped me when interviewing for jobs, and in my legal career. For example, I became more comfortable with public speaking, which helped me feel more comfortable in the courtroom. I made lifelong friends and enjoyed feeling part of the community.

The experience meant so much to me that I continue to contribute to the program, teaching the candidates interview skills each year. In the past, I’ve held some rehearsals in my law office after business hours. My hope is that the candidates will have practiced so much during rehearsals with me, that they will feel confident and do well on program night, and perform to the best of their ability. And beyond program night, hopefully the skills they learn will help them when they represent the community, giving speeches, being interviewed on TV, and better yet — outside of the program, with job interviews and in their careers. Years later, I’ll see former candidates who will say, “I remember what you taught me, and I used it during my interview!” Or “I was less nervous giving a speech to my class, because of what you taught me.” And that’s when my heart really feels full. I want young women to succeed, to be confident, to really know themselves, and do well to the best of their abilities.

More recently, last year, I started bringing my daughter to some rehearsals (and) at the end she’ll help put away chairs when we’re cleaning up the room… I hope that when she’s older, she’ll find her own organization or cause that she’s passionate about.

NBW: Any other thoughts?
SS: I am one of the youngest of the 80-plus judges in Alameda County, and one of four Asian American women on the bench in the county. I plan to work very hard and do my best to be a role model for others.

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