chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
May 02, 2022 Feature

The Honorable Lucy H. Koh

By Judge Margaret Kuroda Masunaga (Ret.)

Judge Lucy Haeran Koh is a U.S. circuit judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. After being nominated by President Biden, she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as a Ninth Circuit judge on December 13, 2021. Judge Koh is the first Korean American female federal appellate judge in the United States. In 2010, after being nominated by President Obama, she was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of California. She was the first Asian American U.S. district judge in the Northern District of California and the first Korean American U.S. district judge in the United States. In January 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger appointed her to the California Superior Court for the County of Santa Clara, where she was the first Korean American judge.

Judge Koh remarked that being a judge brings purpose to her work by having the “mission of seeking truth and advancing justice, rather than advancing the interests of one client.” The downside of her work as a district judge was that she often regretted not having as much time as she would like on each case because she had to move her cases amid a heavy docket. As a district judge, Judge Koh presided over many prominent matters, including extending the period for data collection for the 2020 U.S. Census, four patent jury trials involving Apple and Samsung, multiple class-action lawsuits arising out of the Anthem and Yahoo data breaches, and multiple class-action antitrust lawsuits alleging collusion among tech companies for agreeing not to hire each other’s workers.

Judge Koh’s parents played crucial, influential roles in her life. Her mother, Eunsook Tak Koh, was born in North Korea. In the spring of 1946, 11-year-old Eunsook and her six twentysomething male uncles and cousins escaped North Korea by walking through the mountains at night for over two weeks. They slept during the day. When they approached military checkpoints, Eunsook would drop to the ground and play jacks like a local girl. She then waited until her relatives passed through the checkpoints to catch up with them. South Korean currency and the relatives’ documents were sewn into Eunsook’s undergarments. When Eunsook got yellow fever, her uncles took turns carrying her on their backs. They ate whatever food they could find; along the way, they were fed at one or two houses. Eunsook recalls, “I was scared and hungry during this trip.” Once they arrived in South Korea and experienced freedom, they shouted for joy.

Eunsook married Judge Koh’s father, Jae Kon Koh, in 1961. Jae Kon fought against the Communist forces during the Korean War and later opposed Park Chung Hee’s military rule in South Korea. Judge Koh’s brother and sister were born in South Korea. Jae Kon came to the United States in 1966, and Eunsook joined him one year later. Although both of her parents took university classes, her father quit studying to work and eventually acquired ownership of a 7-Eleven store in Columbia, Maryland. Although she was a high school chemistry teacher in South Korea, Eunsook chose to start a nutrition Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland right away rather than waiting a year to start a chemistry Ph.D. program.

After earning her Ph.D., Eunsook took a job teaching nutrition at Alcorn State University, the first African American land grant college in the United States. Alcorn was located in Lorman, Mississippi. Eunsook conducted studies on rural Mississippians to measure the success of the war on poverty. Eunsook interviewed people in their homes, some of which lacked kitchens and bathrooms, and took their health measurements.

Judge Koh’s upbringing in Mississippi inspired her to attend law school. She vividly recalls the poverty of African Americans in rural Mississippi. Judge Koh attended an all–African American kindergarten in Lorman, and then elementary school in Port Gibson, which was about a 45-minute bus ride away from her home. Many of her elementary school classmates ate free breakfast and lunch at school. Some brought their spiral notebooks to school in empty cereal boxes because they could not afford backpacks. The bus to and from school passed some dilapidated homes with toddlers crying on the front porches. Some of these sad images have stayed with Judge Koh her whole life.

The poverty of the African American community was contrasted by the beautiful grounds and students in uniforms marching in perfect formation at an all-Caucasian private school in Port Gibson that Judge Koh passed daily on the school bus. Judge Koh took her family to Mississippi in 2015. She recalls, “The private school closed in 2014, but the beautiful grounds and buildings looked like Yale College. At its height, Port Gibson had about 4,000 residents. Now it is about 1,000 or less.”

In third grade, Judge Koh moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and attended what she thought were integrated schools. However, when working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in law school, she learned that her school district was under a consent decree.

Judge Koh’s happiest childhood memories are from Mississippi. She recalls wonderful afternoons in her best friend’s backyard making gooey mud pies in empty pie tins and playing on a swing set. As a member of Alcorn State University Brownie Troop 104, she sold Girl Scout cookies on the steps of Port Gibson Bank, received badges, and twice attended the Girl Scout’s summer camp, Camp Wahi, where she painted ceramics, sewed leather wallets, sang camp songs, acted in comedy skits, swam, and canoed. Judge Koh recalls that everything at the summer camp was fun: “Even the dining hall clean-up duty was fun. Camp Wahi was a magical place.” In October 1975, she marched with her Brownie Troop in the Port Gibson High School Homecoming parade. Later in Vicksburg, Judge Koh was a cheerleader at her elementary school.

In Mississippi, Jae Kon owned a wig store and then a sandwich shop in downtown Vicksburg. Growing up, Judge Koh worked at her father’s businesses during weekends, holidays, and summers. When Judge Koh took her family to Mississippi in 2015, she learned that the wig store had become a tattoo parlor. Judge Koh told the tattoo parlor staff about her father’s wig store; she was invited to get a tattoo, but she declined. The windows Judge Koh used to stare out of when she was the sandwich shop cashier were now the fancy windows of a wine bar.

After eight years in Mississippi, Judge Koh moved to Norman, Oklahoma, where she graduated from Norman High School and Eunsook taught nutrition at the University of Oklahoma. Jae Kon tried selling real estate and insurance before eventually becoming a manager at a Burger King, then later at a Wendy’s while Judge Koh was attending high school.

Judge Koh is an avid swimmer. She was on a swim team in middle school. One of her favorite high school pastimes was taking children living in a home for children with disabilities swimming every week. Judge Koh was state president of the Oklahoma Junior Classical League and hosted the state convention at her high school during her senior year.

Judge Koh received her undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University. She started her legal career as a Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellow on U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy’s Senate Judiciary Committee staff. She then served in the U.S. Department of Justice in three roles: as a special counsel in the Office of Legislative Affairs, a special assistant to the U.S. deputy attorney general, and an assistant U.S. attorney in the Central District of California. She later moved to Silicon Valley to litigate intellectual property and commercial cases. Prior to becoming a judge, Judge Koh was a litigation partner at McDermott Will & Emery in Palo Alto, California.

The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association bestowed on Judge Koh the Trailblazer Award and the Women’s Leadership Award. Judge Koh has served as a board member for many organizations, including the Asian Pacific American Bar Associations of Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, the Korean American Bar Associations of Northern California and Southern California, and the Korean American Coalition San Francisco and Los Angeles Chapters.

Judge Koh is married to Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuellar, a former California Supreme Court justice now serving as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The two met in Palo Alto through Judge Koh’s former Justice Department colleague who went to college with Justice Cuellar and who happened to be visiting the Bay Area for a weekend. When they married before 270 guests in January 2003, their wedding invitation was printed in three languages: English, Spanish, and Korean. For the reception, guests could choose among two Mexican entrees (stuffed poblano peppers or chicken mole) or one Korean entree (kalbi, or Korean BBQ ribs). Most guests, including Justice Cuellar’s relatives from Mexico, chose kalbi. Justice Cuellar chuckled as he recalled, “Most of the guests were friends of my father or my father-in-law.” Justice Cuellar remembers a moment when they were about to take the dance floor at the wedding reception; Judge Koh whispered in his ear to his surprise, “How does my hair look?” (Every bride can relate to this!)

From the time Justice Cuellar met Judge Koh, he was captivated by her wit: “She was funny.” He adds, “a Korean with a Southern accent.” Personality-wise, “she is curious about people and is lively and social. Lucy is the most hardworking and compassionate person I’ve ever met.” As a federal judge, she prefers “clear writing and reasoning.” She is “intellectually curious and passionate about justice for everyone.” Justice Cuellar said this is no surprise because Judge Koh’s life experiences include growing up in Mississippi and Oklahoma, digging latrines in Mexico, teaching English in Thailand, and researching girls’ education in northern Nigeria.

Judge Koh and Justice Cuellar are devoted to their two children while balancing their careers. Their children hold their own during family debates against Judge Koh and Justice Cuellar, a former member of the law faculty at Stanford Law School who graduated from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford! As a family, they play games (Telestrations and Apples to Apples are their favorites), watch movies, and explore eating different cuisines. Recently, they ate Somali cuisine in Minneapolis. Some favorite topics at family dinners include each family member’s day and activities, current events, news about friends and family, musicals, memes, videos, and movies.

When asked about her bucket list, Judge Koh remarked that she would like to help raise her grandchildren if her children have children of their own. Before kindergarten, Judge Koh was raised largely by her grandmother. Judge Koh’s parents, Eunsook and Jae Kon, helped raise Judge Koh’s children. Eunsook even brought the children to Judge Koh’s law firm twice daily for breastfeedings. Judge Koh observed that childcare has been provided in her family across generations, and she hopes to pay it forward so that her children can also have the ability to work.

At the age of 87, Eunsook still cooks for her grandchildren, attends their performances and games, and is a booster for their school activities. Unfortunately, Jae Kon died of cancer at the age of 80 a decade ago. He regularly watched news stories about Judge Koh’s first Apple v. Samsung jury trial in his hospital room.

When offering words of wisdom to the next generation, Judge Koh cited Senator Tammy Duckworth’s inspirational memoir, Every Day Is a Gift. In Judge Koh’s words, “With everything that has taken place, I think we all realize that every day is a gift. We all took so much for granted. Make the most of every day.”

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

By Judge Margaret Kuroda Masunaga (Ret.)

Hon. Margaret Kuroda Masunaga (Ret.) serves on the ABA Judicial Division, Executive Committee of the National Conference of State Trial Judges.