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When Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Kawaichi admonishes a jury, he has been known to unveil a 3-foot-high Japanese daruma to get his message across. “It was a reminder not to make up their mind before we finished the case,” said Kawaichi, explaining that he would fill in one eye of the good luck figurine at the start and finish of a trial. That tradition will come to an end next month, as Kawaichi, a pioneering jurist known both for his work with the Asian-American bar and for adding a theatrical dash to the courts, concludes a 28-year judicial career Aug. 1. Kawaichi is the first Asian-American to sit on the Alameda County bench and has been a mentor to a generation of local attorneys. He was one of the founding members of the Asian Law Caucus and the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area. Kawaichi has led efforts to address diversity and access issues in the courts and helped expand a program to get more minority law school students summer jobs at law firms. “He has been such a trailblazer,” said Michael Lee, a longtime San Francisco civil attorney. In an interview, the 61-year-old jurist said he has been hired by Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services Inc. �� the private judging powerhouse known as JAMS. “This is the greatest job in the world,” Kawaichi said of his courtroom career. “It has great potential to help people.” In some ways, Kawaichi’s career highlights the growth of the Asian-American legal community. When Kawaichi was an undergraduate professor at UC-Berkeley, he and a group of other lawyers and law students including Lee, Vernon Nakahara, Dale Minami, Eugene Tomine, Gene Lam and Susan Tamura �� who is now Kawaichi’s wife �� developed the Asian Law Caucus. “We had no experience in that type of undertaking. We had no fear,” said Minami, now a name partner at Minami, Lew & Tamaki and a longtime civil rights attorney. Kawaichi joked about the ambition of those early days. “Pizza and beer may have been involved,” he quipped. Founded in 1972, the Asian Law Caucus has grown to take on high-profile impact litigation and provide legal services to the poor. The caucus was part of the historic Korematsu v. United States legal team, which overturned the conviction of a Japanese-American man who resisted internment during World War II. More recently the caucus helped ink a $20 million settlement in 2002 with 26 clothing manufacturers that addressed sweatshop practices in the U.S. commonwealth of Saipan. A few years after the law caucus was formed, Kawaichi joined the core of lawyers who founded the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area. Back then, mainland U.S. law firms didn’t hire Asian lawyers, said Lee, whose Hawaiian family boasts a long line of lawyers and judges. “He was one of a handful of practicing attorneys for us to look up to,” said Lee, who was a student at Boalt Hall. Friends recall that Kawaichi used theatrical stunts as a trial lawyer �� he once tried to drive a motorcycle into court, and built a house of cards to drive home a point. A little of that remains, but Kawaichi is mostly known for being a good-humored and patient jurist. Kawaichi presided over civil trials and managed asbestos litigation for the Alameda County court. In a 2002 Alameda County Bar Association survey, he was widely lauded for fairness and good temperament. “This is a great loss the bench has suffered,” said David McClain, a partner at Kazan, McClain, Edises, Abrams, Fernandez, Lyons & Farrise. Unlike other judges, Kawaichi “shows no arrogance.” “If you raised an issue you could be sure that it would get his complete consideration,” said Stephen Snyder, a San Francisco of counsel at Morgan Lewis & Bockius and veteran asbestos defense attorney. Even Kawaichi’s fans admit that some may have been frustrated by the judge’s easygoing nature. Kawaichi punished lawyers when they got out of line but was rarely heavy-handed with sanctions. Attorneys were often allowed to ramble long after they’d made their point, lawyers say. “It does get frustrating,” McClain said. “You think it should be done in 15 minutes and it takes a half hour.” Kawaichi says he believes that attorneys should be given room to try their cases. “I believe that attorneys know their cases,” the judge said. “We don’t. I let everything that is legally admissible in.” Kawaichi may irritate attorneys who want fire and brimstone, observed civil defense attorney John Wallace of San Francisco’s Jackson & Wallace. But the judge’s personality is well suited for resolving disputes and for his future work at JAMS. If one attorney says a case is worth $10 million, and another says it’s worth 10 cents, Wallace said, Kawaichi will “just smile and say, ‘We have some work to do.’”

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