A Daughter of the Korean Peninsula Ascends to the Federal Bench

On June 7, the U.S. Senate approved the nomination of the first Korean-American in U.S. history to serve as a federal district court judge.

By a 90-0 vote, Lucy Koh ’93 was confirmed to sit on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. She had been serving as a California Superior Court judge for Santa Clara County, and before that, she had established herself as an IP litigator and criminal prosecutor.

Koh was the first in her family born in the United States. Her mother had escaped from North Korea at the age of 10 by walking for two weeks to South Korea, hiding from North Korean soldiers along the way. Her father fought against the Communists in the Korean War. He immigrated to the United States and worked as a busboy and waiter while taking university courses.

Koh was raised primarily in Mississippi, where her mother taught at Alcorn State University. As a young child, she was bused to predominantly African-American public schools. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer told the Senate that it was in part this experience that inspired Koh to pursue a career in law and to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in law school. After graduating from law school, Koh worked on civil rights issues for a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee and worked at the Justice Department for then U.S. Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick ’75.

Early in her career, she moved to Los Angeles and became a federal prosecutor. Then FBI Director Louis J. Freeh gave Koh an award for her prosecution of a $54 million securities fraud case. A jury instruction from one of Koh’s trials was also adopted as a 9th Circuit Model Criminal Jury Instruction.

She later worked in private practice as a partner at McDermott Will & Emery in Silicon Valley, where she concentrated on complex intellectual property litigation. She was part of the litigation team in the landmark patent case In re Seagate Technology, in which a new standard was set for willful patent infringement for the first time in 24 years.

Bijal V. Vakil, who now is executive partner-in-charge of White & Case’s Silicon Valley office, was her colleague at McDermott, and they both also were actively involved with the Asian Pacific Bar Association of Silicon Valley. “Judge Koh is uniquely positioned to be a district judge in Silicon Valley because of her criminal law and intellectual property background,” he said.

Praise for Koh’s appointment has also come from leadership of the Asian-American legal bar. Joseph J. Centeno, president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, called it “a historic achievement.”

In 2008, Koh spoke about her experience practicing law as an Asian-American woman during an event at Harvard Law School focused on women graduates. She touched on negative stereotypes about Asians that she confronted as a prosecutor and a judge. But she also made the audience laugh as she spoke of some stereotypes that were potentially helpful. She recalled, for example, that as a patent litigator, if a client “wanted to presume I was from a long line of Silicon Valley engineers,” she said, “I would never tell them nobody in my family could program a VCR.”

Koh is the second federal judge of Korean descent. The first was 9th Circuit Judge Herbert Choy ’41, who was appointed to the Circuit Court by President Richard Nixon in 1971.