Retired Filipino American Judge Benes Aldana is a humble leader who has had his share of being mistaken as a valet driver or other service worker when he’s the only dark-skinned person at an elegant social function. But he takes it all in stride and is establishing himself as a pioneer in the field of judicial education with ambitious goals.
Since 2017, he has served as president of the National Judicial College (NJC), the nation’s oldest, largest, and most widely attended school for judges. Every year, the NJC educates judges from all 50 states and some foreign countries. When the pandemic struck in 2020, the college, which has been based in Reno, Nevada, since 1964, shifted much of its in-person programming online and enrollment surged past 20,000, more than double the previous record.
During his four years in charge, Judge Aldana has led the creation of many new programs, including a first-of-its-kind Judicial Academy for lawyers who aspire to become judges. Five members of the first class from a year and a half ago have already made it to the bench.
In December 2018, the NJC presented a national symposium in Washington, D.C., on efforts to undermine the public’s faith in the courts and the media. The daylong program was covered in its entirety by C-SPAN. In 2020, the college organized another symposium in the nation’s capital on combatting implicit bias in jury decisions.
Associate Justice Sabrina McKenna of the Hawaii Supreme Court said, “President Benes Aldana is showing tremendous leadership at the National Judicial College, diversifying its offerings, modes of presentation, and its faculty, allowing the college to reach a broader spectrum of judges with topical offerings, especially relating to the pandemic.”
After COVID-19 closed most courthouses, the NJC responded with a series of webinars for judges and attorneys on how to keep courts functioning. One attracted more than 2,000 participants from all over the world! That was five times the previous record for an NJC webinar.
As incidents of racial tension escalated in 2020 against African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Judge Aldana’s concern focused on racial justice. The NJC offered numerous online judicial education seminars, including Racial Fairness and the Courts: The Role of the Judge in Achieving Racial Justice in the Time of Racial Turmoil.
Under his leadership, the college has also launched a program called Reading & Robes that involves judges, wearing their robes, reading to students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The children read culturally diverse books with themes of justice, fairness, and the law. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor participated in the program in 2020, drawing on her autobiographical books for young readers, Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You! The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, and Turning Pages, My Life Story. Schools in Nevada, Alabama, Hawaii, Iowa, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Ohio have all participated in Reading & Robes. These autographed books are available for purchase through the Supreme Court Historical Society at https://supremecourtgifts.org/collections/hardcover-books/signed-by-the-author.
Benes Aldana’s life experiences have been shaped by his father, Reynaldo Aldana, who passed away at the age of 76 in May 2020 in Irvine, California.
“He was my hero and my inspiration,” reflects Judge Aldana.
Reynaldo Aldana served in the U.S. Navy at a time when the only role open to Filipinos was that of steward in the officers’ mess. He eventually retired as chief petty officer.
Judge Aldana served in the U.S. Coast Guard from 1994 until he retired as the chief trial judge in 2017. Judge Aldana was the first Asian Pacific American to serve as the chief trial judge of a U.S. military service.
Another important person in Judge Aldana’s life has been his son Ehrik Aldana, a graduate of Yale University. His most precious memory is when his son was born in 1993.
Judge Aldana’s earliest memories of growing up are from when he was in the first grade at Santa Rita Catholic School in Santa Rita, Pampanga, Philippines. He recalls being in the open space, looking up at the blue skies, and wondering what else is out there. He imagined what it would be like to be in the United States of America.
Judge Aldana visited that same field in the Philippines in January 2019 with his twin brother Ace. He still has first cousins who live in the Philippines.
As a young lawyer, Judge Aldana got involved in the American Bar Association (ABA) Young Lawyers Division in 1997, when he attended the Midyear Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. Fellow young lawyer James Durant was his roommate, and they both grew up in the ABA; Judge Aldana went on to become ABA/YLD Assembly Speaker in 2005, and several years later, he led the ABA Solo, Small Firm, and General Practice Division.
Needless to say, the American Bar Association, the National Judicial College, and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) are organizations Judge Aldana holds near and dear to his heart. They are part of his ohana, the Hawaiian word for “family.”
Kauai, Hawaii, is his favorite place, and understandably so. Hawaii was the first American soil young Benes (rhymes with tennis) set foot on when he immigrated to the United States when he was 10. By the time he was 13, he knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He grew up in Oak Harbor, Washington; graduated from Seattle University; and received his juris doctor from the University of Washington.
He became a Seattle Seahawks football fan and enjoys playing tennis and eating food like paella with chorizo, pork, and/or seafood.
Besides the ABA and NJC, Judge Aldana has been a leader in the NAPABA. Former NAPABA President Ruthe Ashley, who has known him for decades, says she has always “respected and admired his integrity and authenticity” and that Judge Aldana “is always available to give back to his profession or community.” Judge Aldana was the recipient of the NAPABA’s highest honor in 2015, the Senator Daniel K. Inouye Trailblazers Award. In 2003, he was a recipient of the NAPABA’s Best Lawyers Under 40 Award.
He has also been active as an officer in the Judicial Council of NAPABA, recently completing his tenure as the council’s president.
The recent anti-Asian violence in America has been alarming to Judge Aldana. “As an Asian Pacific (Filipino) American, I feel especially distressed along with family members and many friends. Sadly, we have seen this before. As we discussed in our course When Justice Fails: Threats to the Independence of the Judiciary, a U.S. Supreme Court majority upheld the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans at the start of World War II based on racist beliefs. At this moment in history, all thoughtful Americans need to speak out against anti-Asian violence and prejudice and affirm our nation’s ideals of justice, peace, and tolerance.”
Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court Tani Cantil-Sakauye said this about Judge Aldana: “Benes is well known nationally amongst all courts and jurists—he is a respected, admired, visionary and inclusive leader, not only as president of the judicial college but also as a thoughtful leader in the ABA and other national legal organizations. As a Filipina American jurist, I am proud of our shared culture and friendship.”
Judge Aldana draws on his own life experiences in discussing implicit bias issues with judges. His ethnicity has provided numerous examples of bias. Once when he was serving as presiding judge at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, he was walking down the hallway in his black robe. A Caucasian woman said to him, “Oh, is there a graduation ceremony going on?”
On more than one occasion, Judge Aldana was mistaken as a valet. When he was at an ABA Midyear Meeting in Miami, he walked outside the hotel wearing a tuxedo and someone drove up and handed him the keys to his car! He told the gentleman, “I don’t work here” but was tempted to drive off in the convertible.
Such experiences have not left him bitter. Rather, they have given him perspective. He warns judges not to become numb to the system. He says putting on a black robe does not make one magically become fair.
“Remember, every person appearing before you in court is first and foremost a human being. Treat people with respect, inside and outside of the courtroom. Fairness depends on approaching everyone and every situation with an open mind.”