By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR IN CHIEF
UPDATED: Federal Judge Robert M. Takasugi, the first Japanese American appointed to the federal bench, passed away in Los Angeles on Aug. 4. He was 78. A memorial service will be held on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 4 p.m. at Town and Gown, 665 Exposition Blvd., located on the main campus of USC.
Judge Takasugi was appointed to the federal bench for the Central District of California by then President Gerald Ford in 1976, after serving on the Los Angeles Municipal and Superior Court benches. As both a district court judge for 33 years and an invitee of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Takasugi’s work was consistently marked by a high degree of integrity and a commitment to equal access to justice.
“Bob was probably a one-of-a-kind person. He grew up very much as a Japanese American,” said Dale Minami, co-founder of the Asian Law Caucus. “I think the whole internment and his growing up shaped his commitment to social justice and his personality. He was a tough guy, who wouldn’t take crap at all.”
Judge Takasugi mentored the founders of the Asian Law Caucus who battled for the vindication of all Japanese Americans in 1983 by seek¬ing coram nobis review of Korematsu v. United States.
Minami explained that in 1981 he spoke with Takasugi in hypothetical terms about challenging the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, in what would eventually be the Korematsu case.
“I said Bob, this is totally hypothetical, if we found evidence of great misconduct years ago, do you think it’s grounds for overturning conviction?” recalled Minami, who was the lead counsel on the Korematsu case. “He said, ‘Absolutely. Damn, I wish I could work on that case.’”
Takasugi along with his family were uprooted from their homes in Tacoma, Wash. and incarcerated at Tule Lake during World War II. That childhood experience instilled in the judge a sense of social justice that was evident in his work as an attorney and on the bench.
He received his undergraduate degree from UCLA in 1953 and his law degree from USC in 1959. After a stint in the Army, Takasugi went into private practice in Los Angeles from 1960 until his appointment to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1975.
“The camps made a big impression on him and was a guiding force throughout his life in his legal career and judicial career. It gave him a sense of justice,” said Dee Hayashi, an attorney with the California Appellate Project and a former extern for Takasugi. “He wasn’t swayed so much by outside political forces and he always had a sense of integrity of what was right.”
In 2002, he gained national media attention for his dismissal of several indictments against Iranian and Iranian American defendants, alleged to be members of a terrorist cell attempting to overthrow the Iranian government. The defendants challenged the government’s unilateral characterization of the group as a terrorist organization. In the face of post-9/11 public sentiment, Judge Takasugi ruled that the government’s procedure for classifying the group as a terrorist organization was unconstitutional because the classification was made without due process of law.
During a meeting in March 2003 in Little Tokyo sponsored by Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress and the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Takasugi was sharply critical of the Patriot Act, signed into law by President Bush which gave the federal government broad powers in the wake of 9/11.
“Whoever drafted the Patriot Act must have flunked out of law school,” he said.
“Even though these laws have been passed, if it comes to court I think that the individuals affected should demand the rights that are in the books and fight like blazes. This country can only exist if we can honor its Constitutional principles,” Takasugi said.
Through his service on the Judicial Affirmative Action and Indigent Panel Committees, Judge Takasugi strived to expand the participation in law of women and people of color.
He was the first judge in the Central District of California to hire a female law clerk.
But perhaps Judge Takasugi’s greatest contributions occurred outside the courthouse, in his role as teacher, mentor and role model to thousands of law students and attorneys. By personal example and leadership, Judge Takasugi labored to encourage each of his students and mentees to reach their full potential and to give back to the community.
Hayashi recalled that the judge would have a big picnic every year for his former law clerks. The Takasugi Public Interest Fellowship was created by his former clerks and externs in 1999 and continues to award fellowships to law students interested in pursuing issues of equal justice.
“It was always held in August so people who just took the bar exam could come. You had that family feeling, you were part of his family and he wanted to keep up with people and how they did in their careers,” said Hayashi.
“He would chide us and keep pushing us, all the young people he mentored or taught at the bar exams. He kept challenging them to be better, to make society better,” said Minami.
Takasugi is survived by his wife Dorothy, his son Jon (Haydeh), and his daughter Lee; grandchildren, Kinuyo and Matthew. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Robert M. Takasugi Pro Bono Bar Review. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to the JEF — Pro Bono Bar Review, c/o Japanese American Bar Association, PO Box 86063, Los Angeles CA 90086. Parking for the memorial service on Thursday is available in Parking Structure 2 off of Flower St., north of Exposition and at Exposition Park.