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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 12, 2004

1916 - 2004
Herbert Choy served on 9th Circuit Court

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

Herbert Choy, the son of South Korean immigrants who became the first lawyer of Korean ancestry to be admitted to the bar and the first Asian American to serve on the federal bench, died Wednesday due to complications from pneumonia.

The senior judge on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was 88.

"Everyone should be tremendously proud of what he accomplished because it wasn't easy," said Bruce Kim, one of Choy's six nephews and cousins who became an attorney. "He broke open a lot of doors for Asian Americans and Korean Americans, both here and nationally."

Choy gained admission to the bar in November 1941 and enjoyed a prolific legal career that pinnacled in 1971 when he was nominated by President Nixon to the appeals court. Choy achieved senior status in 1984, when he retired but continued to work on cases for the court headquartered in San Francisco.

He also served as attorney general for the Territory of Hawai'i in 1957 and 1958, the first person of Korean descent to hold such a post anywhere in the country.

As an esteemed member of Hawai'i's Korean community, Choy was lauded for his accomplishments in perpetuating Korean culture. "He was a pillar of the community and a strong supporter of Korean culture and things Korean in the community," said Edward Shultz, Director of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawai'i.

"Judge Choy will be remembered by all who knew him as a man with enormous integrity who richly deserved the high positions he received but did not always seek," said 9th Circuit Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder.

In July 2002, one of Choy's former law clerks, Honolulu attorney Richard Clifton, joined him on the appeals court.

Choy's long legal career left attorneys and judges inspired by his accomplishments. Many of his former law clerks, like Clifton, went on to exemplary careers.

Several judges and attorneys were startled to learn of his passing.

"I'm shocked to hear about Judge Choy passing away," said Chief Justice Ronald Moon of the Hawai'i Supreme Court. "He was the first in many areas. He was a very outstanding lawyer and a competent and outstanding jurist."

Herbert Young Cho Choy was born the son of two South Korean immigrants in the sugar plantation town of Makaweli, Kaua'i, in 1916. His parents were part of the first waves of Korean immigrants to come to Hawai'i, and their beginnings were very humble, his nephew Kim said.

At 14, Choy worked 10 hours a day at 12 1/2 cents an hour in a pineapple processing plant in Honolulu. Choy graduated from the University of Hawai'i in 1938 and received his law degree from Harvard University in 1941.

Fresh out of Harvard, Choy's life forever changed on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The next day, he enlisted in the Army.

As a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps, he entered the Army as a lieutenant and left as a captain, after serving in both Japan and Korea, part of the time as a member of the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Choy was a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves JAG Corps. He emerged from the Army tri-lingual, mastering Korean, Japanese and English.

After leaving the Army in 1947, Choy went into private practice in Honolulu with Hiram Fong and Katsuro Miho. Fong served with Choy for 12 years before leaving in 1959 to join the U.S. Senate.

As a member of the Senate, Fong recommended his former law partner for appointment to the 9th Circuit in 1971.

While he served in the 9th Circuit, Choy maintained his home in Hawai'i, choosing to travel 5,000 miles once a month from Honolulu to San Francisco and back to hear cases.

"I kind of like the five-hour flights; it gives me time to relax and study my briefs," Choy told the Advertiser in 1972.

Choy never owned a home or rented an apartment in San Francisco. Instead, he chose to stay in a hotel.

Choy surfed for 40 years until he gave up the sport in 1970 after almost drowning in a surfing accident off Waikiki Beach.

"I've taken up tennis now," Choy said at the time. "I might get tennis elbow but I won't drown."

Choy and other 9th Circuit judges' were responsibility for reviewing the decisions of federal judges in Hawai'i, Alaska, California, and six other Western states.

But Choy, a Republican who described himself as a "middle of the roader with some conservative tendencies," preferred to stay out the limelight, despite his illustrious career. "I don't make any fanfare," he said in a 1984 interview. "I prefer to be quiet."

"He was an admired and respected colleague who will be greatly missed," U.S. District Judge David Ezra said. "He was a mentor to dozens of highly respected lawyers. We deeply regret his passing but the legacy he has left of public service will not quickly be forgotten."

Reach Peter Boylan at 535-8110 or pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.