The West Justice Center honors Orange County’s first Asian American lawyer.
WESTMINSTER, Calif. — Orange County Superior Court’s West Justice Center has been renamed after Judge Stephen K. Tamura, the first Asian American Superior Court judge in the county’s history.
In a ceremony that was live-streamed on Nov. 6, the County of Orange paid tribute to Tamura, who, during his distinguished legal career, was the first Asian American lawyer in Orange County, the county’s first Asian American to preside and serve on the County Council, the first Asian American Superior Court judge and presiding judge in Orange County and the first Asian American justice on an appellate court in the continental U.S.
The Hon. Kirk Nakamura, presiding judge of the Superior Court, County of Orange, spearheaded a committee’s efforts to rename the building, along with Susan Kawaichi, Justice Tamura’s daughter. Other members included Dr. Kristine Dennehy, a professor at California State University, Fullerton; Dr. Arthur A. Hansen, professor emeritus at CSUF; Ellyn Iwata; Kurtis Nakagawa; Randy Tamura; Mary Urashima; and Norio Uyematsu.
In April 2019, Nakamura first set forth the idea of submitting an application to rename the Superior Court’s West Justice Center in honor of Tamura. On April 8 of this year, the Judicial Council of California issued its order approving the renaming request.
“It was a real privilege to submit the application to name the West Justice Center in honor of the late judge,” said Nakamura in a statement at the time. “He was a man of many ‘firsts,’ and I am very proud to have followed his footsteps to the Bench.”
When Nakamura was elected in 2017, he became the second Japanese American judge to hold this position, Tamura being the first. Nakamura then made it a point to learn about many of the remarkable accomplishments and contributions of his predecessor.
- Judge Tamura grew up in Orange County and attended Huntington Beach High School.
- He received a BA degree from Pomona College and an LLB degree from Boalt Law School, University of California, Berkeley.
- Tamura was a founding board member of the Orange County JACL chapter in 1935, which held its first meeting in the Wintersburg Japanese Church.
- Admitted to the California Bar in 1937, Tamura began his law practice in Santa Ana, Calif.
- Mere months before the onset of World War II, Tamura married Kay Kazuko Nozawa; a year later, the couple was detained in Arizona’s Poston Relocation Center, where he provided legal services while incarcerated. They were later transferred to the Amache Relocation Center in Colorado.
- In 1945, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
- Tamura was appointed in 1961 by California Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown to the Orange County Superior Court, the first Japanese American to hold this position. He was elevated to the Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Division Two in 1966.
- In 1972, Tamura was named the recipient of the Orange County Bar Assn.’s Franklin G. West Award, the “highest honor presented to outstanding attorneys and judges whose lifetime achievements have advanced justice and the law.”
- Between 1979 and 1981, Tamura filled an appointment to the State Judicial Council. He also served as a justice pro tem on the California Supreme Court.
- In 1981, he co-chaired with Henry Kanegae a committee to oversee the Orange County Japanese American Council’s stated commitment to “promoting an understanding and appreciation of Japanese American culture and heritage on the contributions of Japanese Americans to the history and development of Orange County.” Upon his death the following year, the council’s history committee determined that, to commemorate Judge Tamura’s history and legacy, the series of oral histories it was compiling with longtime residents of the county’s Japanese American community be designated as the Honorable Stephen K. Tamura Orange County Japanese American Oral History Project.
Nearly four decades following his death in 1982, Tamura will forever be remembered having lived a life that reflected his love of family, commitment to his community and dedication to public service.
In a statement to Spectrum News 1, Nakamura said, “When you see the accomplishments of Stephen K. Tamura, you see the accomplishments of a trailblazer who basically showed the way in the legal profession as to how Asians could ultimately succeed.”
— Susan Kawaichi, Dr. Arthur A. Hansen, Dr. Kristine Dennehy contributed to this article.