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The JABA Legacy Project: Legal Legends in the Nikkei Community

Janice Fukai: Justice for All

As her title suggests, Los Angeles County Alternate Public Defender Janice Y. Fukai defends members of the public in court who have been accused of criminal acts. As the Alternate Public Defender, Ms. Fukai heads a county office comprised of 300 employees, including over 200 attorneys who represent criminal defendants that the county’s Public Defender is unable to defend due to conflicts of interest or other reasons.

Courtesy of the Japanese American Bar Association

But what is truly respectable and remarkable about her position is that she and her staff help those who need legal assistance but who are unable to afford an attorney. The reason for her commitment to this ideal is a timeless truth she values and believes to be self-evident: “Money is irrelevant in terms of our Constitutional guarantees.”

To better appreciate Ms. Fukai’s work, it would be helpful to examine her background. Ms. Fukai grew up in Gardena where she attended all public schools from Denker Elementary to Gardena High School. As a child, she was very active and played in the first all-girls softball and basketball teams for an organization called Friends of Richard that her father, Mas Fukai, created for an athlete he coached who passed away.

In addition to being physically active, Ms. Fukai also excelled academically. She attended the University of Southern California and went on to receive her J.D. from its law school. When asked about her decision to go to law school, she responded that her interest in pursuing a legal career came from her father who was a dedicated public servant and a longtime member of the Gardena City Council.

“As a kid, I remembered my father, who was interned,…constantly lamenting that back in 1942 if there had been more Asian American lawyers, judges, activists, community leaders to protest the unthinkable incarceration, we could have avoided that ugly chapter in American history. That is probably what convinced me to be interested in law in the first place.”

From her father’s stories and experience, she realized the significance of the law and lawyers. During law school, she ambitiously competed in an activity called moot court, a mock trial and oral argument competition for law students, and it was this experience that gave her a life-changing opportunity.

“During my second year of law school, I got into the semifinal round in a moot court competition, and that’s when one of the judges was the Honorable Robert Takasugi…. [After the round,] he found me and he offered me an internship for my third year of law school to intern for him at the Federal courthouse. That was great, I would have preferred not to have won the moot court and have that internship opportunity, so it all worked out well.”

Ms. Fukai reflects that her clerkship was a “huge accomplishment” at the time, because it was rare, and almost impossible, for a law student to receive an externship at a Federal courthouse. She maintains that she was very lucky to have the opportunity and that this experience paved the path to her distinguished career in law that followed.

“[My externship] was the best experience that I ever had. I was allowed to basically sit in court, watch him handle case, see the cases being tried, be part of the sentencing, hear how he reasons things, it was more for me, not him that would hire externs and that’s how the legend goes. He would hire a lot of student externs and law clerks, the law clerks supervise the externs for him, but all of us would get together and have the ability to discuss with him all the reasons for his decision, and it was quite remarkable.”

Ms. Fukai worked for Judge Takasugi and was endowed with knowledge, confidence, and opportunities. She particularly reminisces about a piece of advice that was passed on to her by Judge Takasugi: “Public service, number one. But defense, probably more important.” To Ms. Fukai, these words themselves were most important. They inspired her to become a defense lawyer. However, Ms. Fukai says almost rhythmically, “My father’s public service influence and Judge Takasugi’s legal influence.” Indeed, Mr. Fukai’s presence also cannot be overlooked.

“[My father] was very interested in public service so that’s probably why I ended up where I am today. Very interested in politics and community and helping others, especially Japanese Americans. That’s probably why I got where I am today in terms of my desires to be a public servant.”

Since law school, Ms. Fukai has successfully pursued a career in criminal defense, first, as a Public Defender and, then, as the Alternate Public Defender of Los Angeles County. The transition was fluid, but it was difficult to manage in the beginning. Ms. Fukai recalls having to purchase supplies from the local stationery store and not having enough room in the office for all of her employees. She remembers some of her attorneys working out of their cars until there was enough room in the building office. This “unspoiled but caring” attitude of the attorneys brought the Alternate Public Defender’s office to prominence and made it one of the premier legal organizations in the country.

When she was appointed to the position of Alternate Public Defender, Ms. Fukai was admirably the first Asian American woman to head a Los Angeles County department.

“It’s sad that it took that long to happen, but it did. I think that what it does is put a lot of pressure on me… As the first Asian American woman, you feel that you have something more to prove—that you cannot make mistakes and that have to go above and beyond for the future. Since I’ve been appointed, there are plenty of Asian American women who are now in leadership positions. I am very proud of that!”

Ms. Fukai carved out a path and opened the door for future generations of Asian Americans and minority women to overcome stereotypes and shatter the glass ceiling. She hopes this trend will continue, so they can lessen the sneers and snickers she overheard when she walked into the courtroom years ago.

Today, Ms. Fukai continues to serve as a promising symbol of justice and a noble guardian of the poor. As she always exclaims, “The value of this profession is making sure that everyone’s constitutional rights are upheld irrespective of their wealth.” It is truly an amazing remark.

Towards the end of the interview, she conveyed a message to Japanese American youth who are currently aspiring to become attorneys: “If you think you can, you can. Most people shy away out of fear of failure. The more times you fail the better person you become.... It’s okay to fail. You won’t even succeed if you don’t try.”

She says this with a smile. After all, many years ago, Ms. Fukai thought she could, and she did.

 

© 2013 Sean Hamamoto

attorney california Gardena JABA Janice Fukai Judge Robert Takasugi law Mas Fukai Robert Takasugi

About this series

The Japanese American Bar Association (JABA) Legacy Project compiles profiles of legal legends and leaders in the Japanese American community through written articles and oral histories. In particular, this project focuses on eminent attorneys’ distinguished careers, their work for the Nikkei community, and their service to society.

Japanese American Bar Association website >>

Read articles from the other JABA Legacy Project series,

“Pioneering Jurists in the Nikkei Community” by Lawrence Lan (2012)

“Two Generations of Pioneering Judges in the Nikkei Community” by Sakura Kato (2014)